Lawrence is short a fire engine because of staffing shortages, union says

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Lawrence has been short a fire engine most of the day Thursday, and firefighters expect that to happen again — maybe as soon as this weekend — because of staffing shortages and overtime cuts.

Seamus Albritton, president of IAFF Local 1596, the firefighters union, said normal daily staffing for Lawrence-Douglas County Fire Medical operations is 39 firefighter-paramedics, but that minimum has been cut to 36.

“Usually if we did not have 39 people available to work due to various reasons such as leave, we would call firefighters back for overtime to fill those vacancies allowing us to keep all units in service for the shift,” Albritton said via email. “The City is no longer calling back firefighters for overtime to fill these vacancies until we drop below 36 employees.”

The result of that? Engine 5, the fire engine for Station No. 5 at 1911 Stewart Ave., will go out of service for a shift, Albritton said.

Engine 5 is out from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Thursday, and “is likely to be out of service more frequently as the summer goes on and for entire 24 hours shift routinely,” Albritton said. “This may be happening again as soon as this Saturday.”

We sent a few questions to LDCFM spokespeople and received responses from the city.

“We’re working on a response to your question set,” Cori Wallace, a spokesperson for the City of Lawrence, said via email Thursday afternoon. “Due to the current collective bargaining standard that warrants 24 hours of IAFF review prior to a statement being issued, we need to share the responses with them and await a reply.”

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Just before 5 p.m. Thursday, though, Albritton said he had not received any communications from the city regarding a statement to media.

And “I find that response from the City rather odd,” Albritton said. “It’s true that we are encumbered with ground rules currently prohibiting comment on current MOU discussions, but this issue is not in anyway a result of such discussions.”

He said this change is not a result of MOU discussions “or any other labor-management processes.”

The Lawrence City Commission agreed to hire five more firefighters during last year’s budget process in an attempt to drive down overtime.

“But now a few short months later, the city has failed to fill those spots and has instead decreased the minimum allowed number of firefighters and fire trucks on duty daily in the face of increased work load and lengthening emergency response,” Albritton said.

If an event were to happen while Engine 5 is out of service and no other units were available, people would be waiting until a unit in a nearby community — likely Johnson County — could reach them, Albritton said.

That’s dangerous, because success in their work is often dependent upon having enough people arrive in a short amount of time, he said.

Albritton said the city has not cut full-time positions, but not all allotted positions are filled, and budget orders from the city might prevent LDCFM from filling all positions in the near future.

Union members have sounded alarms in recent years as the city continues to expand in new directions, call volumes increase and emergency response times are strained.

“What we can’t out-train for, or out-innovate, is not getting there in time to even make a difference,” Albritton has previously told Lawrence city commissioners.

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Mackenzie Clark (she/her), reporter/founder of The Lawrence Times, can be reached at mclark (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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