Owen Sound city council affirmed its effort to reduce the minimum level of fire department staffing in its collective bargaining agreement with unionized firefighters in a special meeting of council on Thursday.
John Saunders, a labour and employment lawyer with Hicks Morley who represents the city in interest arbitration, updated councillors on hearings that took place in October and November 2018 and says staffing remains an issue.
The previous collective agreement between the City of Owen Sound and the Owen Sound Professional Fire Fighters Association expired on Dec. 31, 2014.
Under that agreement, the minimum staffing level is set at five firefighters while the total guaranteed staff complement of firefighters is 26.
Council passed a motion to endorse the position the city is presenting to arbitrators to seek a reduction in the minimum number of on-duty full-time firefighters from five to four --- one captain and three fire fighters.
The union's position is a decline in minimum staffing will increase risk to firefighters, the public and property.
In 2017, Saunders says the city spent $181,000 in overtime just to achieve the minimum staffing requirement set out in the collective bargaining agreement.
Saunders advised council the union is asking the arbitrator to increase the staff complement from 26 to 28 full-time firefighters.
A consultant's report prepared by former Ontario Fire Marshal Patrick R. Burke at request of the union was also circulated to councillors, but Burke was not in attendance to speak to it.
His report provides conclusions relating to safety, stating increasing the staffing complement of firefighters from 26 to 28 as proposed by the union would provide an increased level of safety for on-duty responding firefighters.
It also relates the city proposal to reduce the number of on-duty firefighters from five to four, would have a negative impact on the safety of firefighters on the initial response.
Saunders says the minimum staffing clause Owen Sound has with its firefighters is not common among similar-sized municipalities. He says it was added into the agreement "decades ago" and argues it might not remain fair today, as the city hasn't seen growth.
According to the 2018 BMA municipal study Owen Sound pays the second-most per capita ($214) for fire services among all municipalities in Ontario with less than 30,000 people; Only Brockville pays more per person ($294) for its fire department.
The next interest arbitration hearing between the city and firefighters is March 16.