'Continuing conversations' keep fire engine company staffed for now
CHAMPAIGN — Engine Co. 154 on the city's west side has gotten another reprieve — this time for two weeks — after city officials said they would significantly reduce the amount of time the truck is available to respond to emergencies by the new year.
City and fire union negotiators are taking the extra time to try reach a deal to save taxpayer money while preserving some amount of overtime pay for firefighters.
The so-called "brownout" of the fire engine at station 4 is technically a staffing change. Last year, city officials said they wanted to cut fire overtime pay by more than $400,000. That move would draw the number of on-duty firefighters below the minimum needed to operate engine No. 154 about 75 percent of the time.
Initially, the brownout would have been effective last summer. City officials held off on applying the cost-saving measure while they negotiated with fire union leaders opposed to the move.
Last month, officials said the change would take place at the beginning of 2012. On Monday, the engine was still in full-time operation, and Fire Chief Doug Forsman said it will be so at least until Jan. 15.
There are "continuing conversations" between city and union negotiators, he said. He declined to comment on the specifics of the negotiations, but said he is "cautiously optimistic" that a deal can be reached that would keep the engine in operation around the clock.
Fire union president Chris Zaremba stopped short of promising an agreement, too. He said he is "hopeful" that the negotiations will end with Engine Co. 154 in full service.
"Hopefully, the city and the union can come to some sort of agreement to allow the city to save some costs and not reduce services," Zaremba said.
He said negotiations have been ongoing since late November, several weeks after an arbitrator sided with administrators on whether the city council had the authority to reduce firefighter overtime pay. The arbitration proceedings were the reason for the first delay in applying the budget cut.
After several more weeks with no compromise, city officials said the brownout would happen on Jan. 1. Now they have moved that date to Jan. 15.
Under the proposal, fire department staffing levels would be reduced to near what they were in 2007, when the city's sixth station opened in the developing southwest part of town. Forsman has said Engine Co. 154, which receives 1.3 calls per day on average, is the least busy of the city's nine fire companies.
Engine 154 is typically the second truck to respond to calls. While it is inactive, the department would have to pull a truck from a neighboring district during an emergency. That would cost responders some time.
Neither Zaremba nor Forsman could say whether an extra two weeks on top of what has already been more than six months of delays would lead to some kind of resolution one way or another.
"It's just trying to come up with something that everyone feels comfortable with," Zaremba said.