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West Hartford Firefighters Union and Town Council Agree to New Four-Year Contract

Photo credit: Ronni Newton (we-ha.com file photo)

With a 6-3 vote along party lines, the West Hartford Town Council approved a four-year contract that had previously been ratified by Local 1241 of the Firefighters Union.

By Ronni Newton

A new contract for West Hartford’s firefighters was approved by the Town Council by a 6-3 vote Tuesday night, with the three Republicans members casting the dissenting votes.

Town Manager Matt Hart said that the four-year agreement, which was previously ratified by Local 1241 of the Firefighters Union and is retroactive to July 1, 2018, met five key goals: provides efficiency and effectiveness of deployment of paramedics and other services as determined in a study being conducted by Fitch & Associates, is viewed as fair and equitable to both parties, is financially sustainable for the town with respect to wages and benefits, will enhance recruiting and retention of qualified personnel, and will stabilize conditions for the new fire department administration.

Fire Chief Greg Priest told the Council that he is proud to represent the town, and the “gravity of that responsibility is not lost on me.” The negotiation process, he said, was truly a team effort conducted by Hart, Mayor Shari Cantor, the Town Council, the Human Resources team led by Rick Ledwith, Assistant Chief Mike Sinsigalli, and the Union’s negotiating team members led by President Joe Robidoux.

Key changes in the contract, highlighted by Priest, are:

  • A new 24-hour on and off schedule, which aligns with deployment plans and is similar to other departments of similar size. Seventy-five percent of departments in the state use some type of 24-hour schedule, Priest said, and the move will help West Hartford to recruit the best people. It will also eliminate shift changes at a time of day when call volume is traditionally high.
  • Overtime provisions have changed, and rather than paying four hours of straight time for overtime in the current contract, time-and-a-half will be paid for the first hour, and for half-hour increments after that. It’s estimated that 250 hours of overtime, or $9,700, will be saved through this provision.
  • Promotions will need to be finalized within 120 days of a vacancy.
  • Members who have been hired as paramedics who have then been promoted will be permitted to continue their service as paramedics for the department. This will also allow for greater depth in the number of West Hartford firefighters who can provide ALS services.
  • Up to four paramedics on duty at any time in West Hartford will be able to be deployed in pairs in smaller, lighter vehicles, rather than arriving at a call in a fire truck, and only three, rather than four, firefighters will be on the apparatus in most cases. The department does not currently have the smaller vehicles, but Priest said, “that ability will also align with some of the recommendations we believe that Fitch will have for us.”
  • A joint labor/management wellness initiative will result in the purchase of upgraded fitness equipment at the fire stations. The town will contribute $20,000 and the Local 1241 will contribute $5,000.

“Tonight’s a great night,” Democratic Town Council member Leon Davidoff said as he expressed his support for the contract, the second public safety contract that has been approved by the Council in the past several months.

Since the rollout of the paramedic program, and the hiring of Chief Greg Priest, the town has seen “improved response times while allowing that residents receive excellent results,” said Davidoff.

“What is really exciting this evening … is that we are not going to expend any more resources or funds to negotiate a contract. I think this contract … is a win-win for both of us,” said Davidoff, adding that it is also exciting that there is no need to expend any more time or financial resources negotiating an agreement. He said that through this agreement, both parties can move forward knowing that they got something that’s important to our community and our firefighters.

“I think in the end the residents are the big winners because our fire department is a top-notch professional team of individuals … who put their lives on the line” for residents, said Davidoff.

The town has engaged Fitch & Associates to study the fire department, and while progress of the study is on time but not yet complete, Fitch was consulted as the collective bargaining agreement was finalized, particularly regarding changes to the deployment of personnel, Hart said.

Hart said that with a new chief on board and the process of recruiting a new assistant chief underway, he believed it was important to resolve the labor agreement in a timely manner.

Executive Director of Human Resources Rick Ledwith, who along with Hart and union leadership negotiated the contract, said it’s “really a progression from the last full agreement the Council ratified in 2014.” At that time, all 88 union members agreed to switch their health insurance to a high deductible plan (HDHP), and to date is the only department within the town fully participating in a HDHP. Also in 2014, the firefighters contract specified a higher pension contribution percentage that is still the highest level among town departments, he added.

Over the past several years, the paramedic program was launched, and rather than paying American Medical Response (AMR) $275,000 annually to provide ALS service, the West Hartford Fire Department now provides that service. In the past year, a net of $575,000 in revenue was received by the town from the paramedic program.

In addition to the structural changes highlighted by Priest, pay will increase 2.25 percent each year under the new contract – slightly below what was agreed to for the police department – and paramedics with medical control will receive an additional stipend of 1-3 percent, depending on years of service, which aligns with other departments around the state, Ledwith said.

Other highlights of the contract include an increase in the health insurance deductible from $1,500 individual/$3,000 family to $2,000 individual/$4,000 family.

West Hartford Fire Department Capt. Jarrad Smith, who is part of Local 1241’s executive team, told We-Ha.com that he considers the level of trust between the town and the department in negotiating this agreement to be “groundbreaking,” and a show of faith in the new chief.

Having the ability to deploy teams of paramedics in smaller vehicles should also ultimately eliminate the need to send fire apparatus along with police and an ambulance to all medical calls if the dispatcher determines that the paramedics can resolve a problem on their own.

While the Local 1241 membership was not unanimous in approval of the contract, Smith said that members are happy about the stability the contract provides.

“We’re trying to be the fire department the town needs us to be,” Smith said.

Republican Town Council member Chris Williams said that while the vote on the fire department contract is one of the most important things the Council has to consider, he is concerned that town expenses are “unsustainable.”

“To me the question becomes how do we ensure the public’s safety needs are met” at the same time as passing a responsible budget. Williams said that he is concerned that rolling the paramedic service into the fire department’s role is keeping staffing at a higher level than needed, and that the program was adopted to keep staffing levels even though there is a drop in the number of actual structure fires.

“The town did not adopt a paramedic program because of poor service by AMR,” Williams said.

Minority Leader Chris Barnes, who also voted against the contract, said that his concern was about pensions, and that the contract did not add another tier for new employees with modifications to the pension plan that could save money “to wind down the pension iceberg that we face in this town and at the state level that is going to be with us for decades to come.”

Democrats praised the nature of the contract negotiations, and said that it provides longterm sustainability for the fire department and the town.

Councilor Ben Wenograd said that the contract is a fair deal that will achieve savings through staffing levels. While the number of structure fires is down, he said, it’s impossible to staff for when they will occur since fires “don’t really play by those rules.”

Wenograd said that he is very confident in the ability of the town’s fire department to both provide excellent protection  for citizens and do it in the most cost effective way possible.

Mayor Shari Cantor said that 72 percent of pension liability is based on past contracts, and while the town needs to meet that burdensome obligation, it’s important to ensure that every contract is competitive and sustainable.

“We have to pay people competitive salaries and treat them well,” said Cantor.

A strong fire department, with strong leadership, is the town’s “insurance policy,” she said. As for determining the “right size,” Fitch is providing that guidance.

“What is the best thing for the long term of our community? We’ve made significant progress” with the fire department, Cantor said. The deployment plan that is part of the contract provides more flexibility and has 21 people ready to respond to a town where there is a large elderly community, and busy roadways where there are regularly vehicle crashes.

“My heart of hearts believes that we are probably right about at the right size department, so how do we use that in the right way?” Cantor said. Generating revenue through the paramedic program, which could eventually reach $1-2 million annually, will providing sustainability, she said.

“I think we are on the path of serving our community in the best way possible,” Cantor said.

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