Eastside Fire & Rescue’s lack of overtime funds stretches agency

November 27, 2012

By Caleb Heeringa

Eastside Fire & Rescue could temporarily understaff or even close stations to deal with a shortfall in its overtime budget in the coming months.

The issue has led to an unfair labor practice charge from EFR firefighter’s union, International Association of Firefighters Local 2878.

Union members worry that temporarily shrinking units from the standard minimum of three full-time firefighters to two could lead to a nightmare scenario – firefighters unable to enter a burning building with people trapped inside, for example.

State law forbids firefighters to enter a structure fire unless three people are on scene.

“It’s a roll of the dice,” EFR Chief Lee Soptich said of understaffing or closing stations to save money. “You may have no calls during that time or you may have 10 calls; they could all be non-emergencies or they could all be life-threatening.”

The agency has thus far been able to avoid calamity; there have been impacts as a result of the understaffing. Fire Station 81 along 212th Avenue Southeast in Sammamish was closed for 24 hours last December because the agency ran out of overtime funds.

Deputy Chief Greg Tryon said the agency only had one incident during that period that had a longer-than-normal wait time for first responders — a nonemergency aid call and where responders took an additional 40 seconds. But for homeowners in other areas served by the station, it could have meant an extra three minutes or more wait if there had been an emergency.

The depleted overtime budget led to the agency using two-man crews at various stations eight times in 2010 and five times last year. Soptich said it appears the agency will have to understaff station again this year. Recent projections put the agency at $30,000 over its $507,000 annual overtime budget.

But Soptich and union president Craig Hooper both express optimism that a solution is on the horizon, whether by more carefully monitoring vacation rules for firefighters or giving Soptich more leeway to redirect unspent funds to the overtime budget.

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