Firefighters Accept No Increases to Pay, Benefits

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After other city employees volunteered to take time off to help mitigate the city's worsening fiscal situation, Berkeley firefighters have accepted no salary and health benefit increases in a two-year agreement adopted by the Berkeley City Council at a meeting Tuesday.

The memorandum of understanding with the Berkeley Firefighters Association maintains current salary and health and welfare benefits levels for two years and implements a one-year pilot program altering firefighters' work schedule.

"In recognition of the current budget problems the city is facing, we felt the responsible thing to do would be to extend the agreement of the current contract," said David Sprague, president of the association.

In addition to fire suppression and prevention services, the Berkeley Fire Department provides the city with emergency services, advanced life support and ambulance transportation.

Under the current schedule, firefighters work a nine-day tour consisting of three 24-hour shifts every other day followed by a four-day break. The agreement implements a pilot six-day tour schedule, which consists of one 48-hour shift followed by four days off, beginning March 2011.

Though the new, eco-friendly schedule would reduce commute time and increase department efficiency, several council members expressed concerns that paramedic fatigue would impact the quality of emergency care.

"I'm very grateful for the firefighters' sacrifices given the fiscal situation of the city," said Councilmember Laurie Capitelli, whose son was a paramedic for eight years. "Paramedics will be on call for 48 hours and ... there will certainly be times where they will not sleep for 48 hours straight. I have serious concerns about that."

Nearby fire departments - including the Alameda County Fire Department and the Contra Costa County Fire Protection District - that have implemented the pilot schedule within the last year have developed policies to address fatigue, according to Sprague.

"The fears are valid," he said. "However, once you understand how things work, the fears are addressed. We are adopting policies and procedures that will address fatigue issues based on policies other departments have adopted and created."

City staff and the department will monitor the program for negative impacts on the quality of emergency care, including increases in vehicle accidents and health and safety complaints. If findings show the work schedule undermines quality, the program can be terminated, according to the memorandum.

In addition to close monitoring, Capitelli and Councilmember Linda Maio said the program must set mandatory rest time for firefighters working 48-hours shifts.

"You can't be at the top of your game for 48 hours unless you get a good six hours of sleep," Maio said. "You may get a little rest, but the idea is to provide the best possible care."


Contact Aaida Samad at [email protected]

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