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Mayor, fire unions fight over plan to force 24-hour shifts

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The Rawlings-Blake administration and Baltimore's fire unions are battling over the city's proposal to require firefighters to work longer hours — 24 hours straight, every three days.

The mayor says the move — which mirrors staffing trends in other large U.S. cities — will save millions for cash-strapped Baltimore while giving its 1,300 firefighters a huge pay raise by creating a longer work week.

The fire unions, however, say the move would represent a cut to their hourly pay and is unfair to employees who have built their lives around a work schedule that's been in place for 20 years. Some firefighters also consider the new schedule potentially unsafe, citing fatigue near the end of a 24-hour shift.

Recent closed-door negotiations produced only fierce disagreement, both sides said last week. Now an arbitrator will decide whether the city's need to save millions overrides firefighters' resistance to working longer hours.

Administration officials say the city's finances will be jeopardized if the firefighters' contract isn't changed.

"We need to save money," said Fire Chief James S. Clack. "We're down to the point where service will suffer if we close any more fire companies."

Citing the looming arbitration, union officials declined to comment for this article. Several firefighters, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because their comments were not authorized by the union, said interference with their personal lives and second jobs, fatigue and lower hourly wages were their main reasons for voting against the proposal recently.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's proposed budget calls for firefighters to work seven more hours a week in exchange for a 12.5 percent raise and $2,500 signing bonus. The change would save the city $60 million over the next 10 years, officials say. The new schedule would save $4.5 million in overtime costs alone, officials say, and would allow the city to cut 156 firefighter positions through attrition.

But firefighters, who are paid less than their suburban counterparts in Maryland, have overwhelmingly rejected the deal, with 87 percent voting against it.

An arbitrator will likely hear the case in late April or early May, Clack said. A decision is needed by June to give the administration time to rework the budget if necessary, he said.

Among the 25 largest U.S. cities, 19 fire departments require longer work weeks than Baltimore does now. The city's firefighters work two 10-hour day shifts, followed by two 14-hour night shifts, then get four days off. They work an average of 42 hours a week.

Los Angeles, Phoenix and Memphis, among others, require firefighters to work 56 hours per week. Detroit, the nation's busiest city for fires, requires them to work an average of 48 hours per week.

Washington, D.C., requires firefighters to work 24 hours straight, before giving them three days off, with an average work week of 42 hours. Of the largest cities, only firefighters in New York City, who work an average of 40 hours per week, work fewer hours than those in Baltimore.

Under federal law, firefighters must be paid overtime if they work more than 53 hours in a week.

The mayor's proposal, which would take effect Jan. 1, would require firefighters to work 24 hours before getting two days off. Their work week would rise to an average of 49 hours, a 17 percent increase, and the city could eventually cut the size of the Fire Department by 156 positions.

That represents a compromise, administration officials say, from an initial proposal to require firefighters to work 56 hours per week and to eliminate 300 positions.

Rawlings-Blake called in February for "bold reforms" to fix a projected $750 million financial shortfall. Among her proposals: requiring more city workers to contribute to their retirement fund, charging residents for trash collection, asking firefighters to work longer hours and cutting the city workforce by 10 percent over time.

In return, she said, the city could use the savings to increase employee salaries and cut property taxes by 22 percent — 50 cents per $100 of assessed value — over the next decade.

Andrew W. Kleine, the city's budget director, said an overhaul of firefighters' work hours is one of the main reforms in the mayor's 10-year plan. "Not getting it would really undermine the plan in significant ways. If we can't reduce taxes, if we can't improve our infrastructure, we're not an attractive place to stay or relocate."

Kleine said the cost of maintaining the Fire Department's aging fleet is increasing, and in the last year, costs rose by $1 million.

"We haven't bought one engine or fire truck in five years," Clack said. "We need to free up money to get the fleet newer."

Several studies have raised concerns about longer work hours for firefighters, and extended hours for professionals such as doctors and pilots have been a topic of national debate.

"An individual's physical performance declines after long periods without sleep," states a 2006 paper by the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs. It adds that people "working 24 hours or more make more mental and technical errors than those working no more than 16 hours."

A 2001 study in the British medical journal The Lancet found that workers who logged back-to-back shifts on their 16th hour displayed the cognitive performance of someone with .05 percent blood-alcohol level.

Still, 24-hour shifts are the norm for many workers. And Clack and other proponents say firefighters' ability to rest and sleep at work makes such shifts a reasonable option.

Howard and Montgomery counties require firefighters to work for 24 hours, followed by 48 hours of rest. Anne Arundel County firefighters work a 24-hour shift, with 72 hours off. Baltimore County uses a similar schedule to Baltimore's current model.

Clack said paramedics' jobs are too demanding to work 24 hours straight, and the Fire Department's 250 paramedics are not included in the proposal.

But 82 percent of calls to the department are for paramedics, while only 18 percent require firefighters to respond, Clack said.

Fires killed fewer people — 12 — in Baltimore last year than in any previous year since such deaths have been tracked, officials said. The chief credited the change to a program that gives out free smoke detectors and an ordinance requiring new construction to include sprinklers.

Several City Council members have expressed concern about the longer hours, but said they wanted to see a formal proposal.

"I know fatigue takes place when you're out there going into these vacant buildings and fighting fires, criss-crossing the city," said Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young. "I can't make a decision right now because I haven't seen anything. It's something where we're going to have to work with the unions, because I'm quite sure we can get a win-win out of this."

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