The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health’s investigation into a local Chicago Firefighter’s death issued a blistering report, including a recommendation that fire departments maintain minimum staffing levels in order to provide safe working conditions for firefighters.
The report is in direct conflict with the position being espoused by Oak Lawn Village President Sandra Bury and the majority of Trustees, who lobbied unsuccessfully to end minimum manning and who are now subject to a judgment of $3.2 million dollars for failing to adhere to court orders requiring minimum manning.
For years, the Oak Lawn Professional Firefighters Association Local 3405 has maintained that minimum manning is a “safety issue”. The village and the firefighters have entered into a contract with language that acknowledges that minimum manning is a safety issue. However, Mayor Sandra Bury taped a video claiming that minimum manning does not increase firefighter safety.
The NIOSH report on the late Chicago Fire Captain Herbie Johnson’s death notes that “the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1710 Standard identifies the minimum resources for an effective firefighting force to perform critical tasks. These tasks include establishing water supply, deploying an initial attack line, ventilating, performing search and rescue, and establishing a RIC. NFPA 1710 recommends that the minimum staffing levels for an engine company to perform effective and efficient fire suppression tasks is four.”
Oak Lawn Village Manager Larry Deetjen has led the assault on the firefighters claiming that three firefighters is adequate. It is a position pushed forcefully by former Trustee Tom Phelan and now by the new board majority. Bury actually recorded two videos for the Illinois Municipal League last year in opposition to legislation making minimum manning a requirement for collective bargaining.
Neither Deetjen or Bury has ever produced any documentation or studies to show that three rather than four firefighters is safer or more efficient. However, the NIOSH report refers to a recently released study by the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST), Report on Residential Fireground Field Experiments that “concluded that a three-person crew started and completed a primary search and rescue 25 percent faster than a two-person crew and that four or five-person crews started and completed primary search and rescue 6 percent faster than a three-person crew.”
On the fateful trip that Johnson took with his fellow firefighters, each of the crews at the incident, were riding with a position short. The report states, “A full complement of personnel would have provided 2 additional fire fighters to aid in the ongoing size-up and to access fire behavior. Also, they would have provided a more efficient search and fire suppression, respectively.”
The report issued nine recommendations including recommendation number 8, which stated, “fire departments should ensure that staffing levels are maintained.”
The Village of Oak Lawn has battled over the issue of minimum manning with the firefighters filing an unfair labor practice against the village for refusing to bargain with the union on the issue. The Illinois Labor Relations Board ruled against the village and that decision was upheld by the Illinois Appellate Court in 2011. The parties are now required to bargain over the issue of minimum manning and submit the matter to binding interest arbitration if they fail to reach an agreement. Minimum manning has long been a contractual provision in the Oak Lawn contract despite Village Manager Larry Deetjen’s efforts to change it.
A resolution opposing the inclusion of minimum manning as a mandatory provision to be negotiated in firefighter contracts was on the agenda at a board meeting for a vote last year. However, while Village Manager Larry Deetjen spoke in favor of the resolution he did not ask for a vote after realizing that he did not have unanimous support for the idea.
Trustee Robert Streit (Dist. 3) opposed the resolution noting that the village was already subject to minimum manning because it lost the 2011 court case that the village pursued. At that time, Streit announced that it was time to quit fighting with the fire department because the court had already decided the issue for Oak Lawn. Streit said that he had supported the village’s efforts to negotiate the provision out of the contract based on Deetjen’s recommendation in the past. Streit criticized the board’s insistence on continuing on the same path regarding the firefighters. He said, “Fighting unfair labor practice charges and appealing losses has not worked. He noted that the appellate court had already decided “we were wrong”.
Although Deetjen spoke in favor of continuing the argument over minimum manning, Streit claimed, that the idea being proposed by the Mayor and Manager was one that will “only exasperate the growing distrust between our employees and the board.”
Bury and Fire Chief George Sheets traveled to Springfield last year to lobby against the bill. Deetjen and others also lobbied legislators by phone. Bury’s video message urged the defeat of the minimum manning bill. Bury claimed that the minimum manning provision has been “devastating to our budget” arguing that the village spends two million dollars on fire department overtime because of the minimum manning standard.
The Oak Lawn Firefighters Union has argued in the past that the overtime is related to the village’s decision to reduce the number of firemen and paramedics from over 100 to 72. Bury chose to tape the message urging the defeat of the bill claiming in her message that “minimum manning is forcing cuts in public works, telecommunications, the police department and administrative staff”. Streit said that the decision to videotape that message sends the wrong message to the public and the fire department.
Bury called minimum manning a “job killer” because other departments will lose jobs due to increased spending for the fire department. In her taped message, which can be found below, Bury claims that the Village of Oak Lawn “strongly opposes the bill” and asked that other municipal leaders do the same.
In the second video taped message, Bury claims that the minimum manning law is “wrong” and not necessary for the safety of the village.In the second video taped message, Bury denied that her opposition to minimum manning is “anti-union” although the firefighters’ unions throughout the state were supporting the legislation that Bury is opposed to and arguing against.
Chicago Fire Capt. Herbie Johnson died battling a fire on Nov. 2, 2012. The Mt. Greenwood U.S. Post Office on 111th at Homan Avenue was renamed as the “Captain Herbert Johnson Memorial Post Office Building.” Trustee Streit said that the report is more evidence that the Mayor and the majority of the board are short sighted on this issue.
To View Sandra Bury’s Video, click below on the arrow. Click here for the report.