It’s firefighting by the numbers and the bottom line will determine whether layoffs will singe Omaha’s Fire Department. The mathematicians are busy and they’re working against the clock.
Mayor Jean Stothert has set a deadline of high noon on Friday for a decision.
Nineteen firefighters from a February recruit class have been getting layoff notices, job cuts effective January 4, in the event that the city and the union cannot strike a deal to reduce the budget hit next year.
The mayor sees savings by way of fewer paramedics going through training. Union leaders say they want to help the city out of its financial jam but within reason.
Union leader Steve LeClair explained the firefighters’ stand: "We'll give you all those tools to meet your budget but give the other 46 the same layoff protection that other the 606 have from the most recent negotiations. And they won't do that."
The mayor has said it takes away her flexibility in running the city. On Monday she said, "In return, they want me to guarantee I won't lay-off indefinitely. And I will not do that."
The fire department will end 2013, $6 million in the hole. The mayor and interim chief are trying to figure out how to make sure 2014 doesn't end the same way.
One of the questions under review is whether the city has too many firefighters.
According to a 2010 comparison to cities with comparable departments, Omaha had 1.6 firefighters for every 1,000 residents. Cincinnati had the most firefighters for its citizens with 2.6 per 1,000 residents. Milwaukee was on par with Omaha but St. Paul, Des Moines, Madison and Lincoln were all doing the job with fewer firefighters.
The union says the time for that debate was during negotiations.
LeClair said, “Comparability isn't really relevant. We have a contract. What's relevant is adhering to the collective bargaining agreement that both sides agreed to just 10 short months ago."
The contract states that two groups of 24 firefighters need to become paramedics next year.
According to the latest count, Omaha has 241 paramedics. Milwaukee, a comparable city with several hundred more firefighters, has approximately 100 fewer paramedics.
The union says they want one paramedic to eventually be on every fire engine.
The interim fire chief says it's not about the numbers but rather it’s about the continued training. That's why he thinks the numbers of newcomers should be scaled back.