By Elizabeth F. McNamara
The East Greenwich Town Council will vote on whether or not to institute a three-platoon, 56-hour work week for the fire department at its meeting Monday night.*
Just down Post Road, the North Kingstown Fire Department has been operating under that system since 2012.
In a four-platoon system, firefighters typically work 10 hours on, 14 hours off, 10 hours on, 24 hours off, 14 hours on, 96 hours off.
Under North Kingstown’s three-platoon system, firefighters work 10 hours on, 14 hours off, 24 hours on, 10 hours off, 14 hours on, 72 hours off, then the cycle repeats.
In East Greenwich, as in North Kingstown, the argument for the switch has been cost savings. EG Town Manager Gayle Corrigan began targeting what she has called unsustainable firefighting expenses even as a consultant for the town, before former Town Manager Tom Coyle was “separated” from the town last June and Corrigan was given his job.
So, how has it worked out in North Kingstown?
According to North Kingstown Fire Chief Scott Kettelle in a recent interview, the savings has been in health care costs because there are fewer firefighters. In North Kingstown, a decrease of 15 firefighters (the equivalent of one platoon) was achieved by not filling the spots of firefighters who retired or left. Health care costs roughly $15,000 per firefighter, according to NK Finance Director James Lathrop – totalling $225,000 a year for 15 firefighters.
Under Corrigan’s 3-platoon plan, the EGFD would lay off 6 firefighters, going from a department of 36 to 30 firefighters. EGFD health care savings based on NK costs would equal $90,000 a year under her plan.
If the Town Council approves going to a three-platoon system, what the town would pay firefighters remains unknown. Firefighters are paid an hourly wage; if they receive their same rate of pay for the additional 14 hours a week, that would not provide a savings.
In North Kingstown, when the three-platoon system was imposed, the town argued that firefighters were salaried and as a result it did not pay them for 14 extra hours. Instead, the town gave firefighters 10 percent more a year. If they had paid the hourly wage for the extra 14 hours, firefighters would have gotten a 33 percent increase in annual wages.
In September 2015, the town and the union signed a four-year contract that, by June 2019, will close the 23 percent gap. In other words, firefighters will be paid at the hourly rate they were making for the same position in 2011.
Kettelle said he was not sure how the change affects pension costs. While there are fewer people, those people are working longer hours, so their pensions will be higher, he said.
EG Town Manager Corrigan’s answer to high overtime costs is to add two “floaters” to each shift – essentially two extra firefighters who can fill in for people who are out (due to injury, illness or vacation) so minimum staffing levels are met. North Kingstown has three floaters per shift and, indeed, overtime costs have decreased in recent years. Still, this year’s overtime is budgeted at $550,000 and Chief Kettelle said the actual overtime number will be about that.
Do to long-term injuries and one firefighter’s decision recently to go join Cranston Fire, NKFD is down to two floaters on two shifts and one floater on one shift. Because the next fire academy isn’t until September, Kettelle said, that means the department won’t have someone available for service to replace that firefighter who left until early 2019.
“There’s 168 hours in a week. Those hours have to be covered,” said Chief Kettelle.
He said there is another cost to be factored in under the three-platoon system: wages under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). North Kingstown and East Greenwich both use a 28-day period under which firefighters can work 212 hours before they have to be paid overtime according to FLSA.
In a 28-day period under the 56-hour work week, one platoon works 196 hours, one platoon works 216 hours, and one platoon works 240 hours. For anyone who works more than 212 hours in a 28-day period (a person has to actually work those hours – illness, injury or vacation time does not count), the town has to pay an additional “half time” for those extra hours so they are making overtime pay (time and a half).
“You have to factor in the FLSA number,” Kettelle said. A few years back, North Kingstown hadn’t been calculating FLSA correctly and firefighters brought a complaint forward. The town eventually agreed with the firefighters and paid double damages back two years.
In East Greenwich, it could get more expensive since firefighters earn “collateral pay” for jobs such as dispatch, training, EMS coordinator – a lower hourly rate that does not count toward their 42-hour work week and so is not subject to regular overtime. But, under FLSA, work is work regardless of contractual arrangements, so FLSA costs could increase significantly in East Greenwich under a three-platoon system, Kettelle said.
East Greenwich’s FLSA costs now are roughly $10,000 to $12,000.
The legal fees to enact the three-platoon system are estimated at $1.5 million. East Greenwich labor legal fees are a mystery – the last bill the town received was for $140,000 for work through November.
Beyond the finances, Chief Kettelle said running a three-platoon system is hard.
“Operationally, it is more challenging then the four platoon system. You have 25 percent fewer bodies available to you,” he said. For Kettelle, that becomes most apparent during weather emergencies like heavy snow storms or hurricanes.
“We would typically hire back additional personnel for each vehicle and bring in more vehicles,” he said. But there are fewer people to hire back. And, unlike during a community-based emergency, such as a building fire, North Kingstown can’t rely on mutual aid from other communities since those communities are dealing with the weather event too.
“Under the four-platoon system, there’s always one platoon that’s completely off,” Kettelle said. Now, if he has to fill slots in a shift, he has to either get someone to stay at work after they’ve already worked their shift, or he has to bring someone in early before their regular shift starts.
“Now it’s a lot harder to fill overtime shifts. We are ordering people to work against their choice considerably more than we did under the four-platoon,” he said. “From the firefighter standpoint, under the three-platoon system, overtime is a burden not a benefit. Guys don’t want to work any more hours.”
Kettelle said North Kingstown has created an ad hoc committee made up of members of the fire department administration, the firefighters union and the town’s finance department to study the true cost of a three-platoon versus a four-platoon system. The panel has not begun that work.
* Town Manager Corrigan has recommended the Town Council approve the schedule change pending Superior Court Judge Susan McGuirl’s ruling on the town’s lawsuit that argues the town has the right to break the union’s contract to impose the change.