Hobbled by Hobson

The Board of Trustees and the Professional Firefighters Association seem locked in a battle of wills which, if left to the extremes, will result in a seemingly unnecessary lose-lose proposition for both sides, along with the residents they each are sworn to serve.

The layoff of paid personnel seems an expedient and effective choice to reduce expenses but it does not come without cost in the form of missed reform opportunities, loss of morale, team destruction and presentation of risk.

It seems essential to reform the scheduling and work rules that led to a thirty-two man department to begin with.  In the private sector (24/7 electric generating plant) the six-man per shift staffing would be accomplished with a twenty-four man department, including supervisory personnel.   This is accomplished with four teams of six working twelve hour shifts, four days on and four days off.  Scheduling is simplified with the elimination of separate teams for weekends or swing shifts.  The employees seem to appreciate the predictability of the scheduling and the benefits of having four consecutive days off.  Compared to alternative scheduling methods, more is achieved with less.

If layoffs occur without scheduling reforms that preserve current firehouse staffing, any event, however unlikely, that subsequently results in arguably avoidable loss of life or property could put the village in a position of defending a policy decision in the aftermath of a tragedy.  Accomplishing needed budget reforms while creatively preserving levels of service mitigates this exposure.

Other work rule reforms are needed to allow the volunteer force to perform in full substitution to the professional force as and when necessary, including the operation of equipment and dispatch of personnel, along with any potential future expansion of the department to include EMS/Ambulance Services, if desired.

The Professional Firefighters are seemingly being forced to concede a reduction in force without being asked to address the essential scheduling and work-rule issues, things that would be difficult for their leadership to ever consider in the wake of forced layoffs.  A post-layoff department is likely to suffer from heightened tension between the professionals and volunteers. 

Over the course of the recent campaign, I heard much about friction between team members from both sides – the professionals fear loss of livelihood and the volunteers resent schedules and work rules that are seemingly in place for the sole purpose of protecting those livelihoods. 

Hobson enters the picture when the Board of Trustees and the PFA must battle over important things like a family’s paycheck and balancing a municipal budget while simultaneously not increasing risk to residents dependent on the department for protection of lives and property.

It may be easier for everyone to get on the same page and on the same team if a strategic vision is scripted by the Board in consultation with both the volunteers and the professionals.  If the ultimate goal is to transition to an all-volunteer department, that should be discussed, disclosed and planned to be phased in so that employees can plan their careers, the volunteer force can anticipate the pace of change and financial metrics can be vetted into a long term plan.  If the goal is to maintain a professional component over the long haul, the size and scope of that component should be similarly discussed, disclosed and planned. 

Our employees are not the enemy, they are our family.  If all parties maintain mutual respect, the necessary can be accomplished in a respectful, good-faith manner. Private sector enterprises go through similar restructurings during periods of adversity.  Essential to the future of any business which seeks to thrive in the aftermath of cutbacks is the budgeting (and financing when appropriate, feasible and necessary) of voluntary buyouts, severance compensation and bridge periods to follow-on employment for those affected.  When affected employees benefit from policies such as these that are not legally required but morally provided, the transitions are made kinder.  More importantly, those who remain proceed with greater confidence that their employer shares some pain when downsizing and has an interest in the members of the team.  Morale can be preserved, services maintained and the cost base restructured.


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