"Fire And The Future:" The Tale Of Two Fire Departments Continues

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Two years ago, the city of Auburn laid off five firefighters to save money.

That didn't work very well.

"It drove overtime and drove overtime past what the budgeted amount was, nearly double, actually more than doubled it," said Auburn Fire Chief Jeff Dygert.

So, the city tried a new approach.

It worked out a new contract with firefighters.

Easy to say, not so easy to do.

"There was a lot of back and forth with the union, a lot of discussion. We reached loggerheads at one point," said Auburn City Manager Doug Selby. 

But now the new contract cuts the required number of on-duty firefighters to 12,  versus 14, before. 

In return, Auburn guarantees the size of the department at just slightly smaller than it was.

"But equally important, it reset the wage schedule so new employees will start at a lower wage and progress slower through the steps," said Selby.

There's also a retirement incentive for long-time, higher-paid firefighters.

The new contract should save the city about $400,000 a year and city leaders say the department is now sustainable.

"I think there's some relief that there's some job security.  Certainly there's a little disappointment over the staffing reductions but I think we're going to get through that," said Dygert. 

If it worked for Auburn, would it work for Watertown? 

What if Watertown asked its firefighters for wage concessions?

Well, of course, that's a sensitive issue.

"I'd tell them that's something that we'd have to discuss as a membership," said Mark Jones, president of Local 191, Watertown Professional Firefighters Union.

And when it comes to minimum manning, the chief says tinkering with that number is playing with fire.

"Somebody says, oh yeah, that number over there, we'd like to try it with this number over here. We have no way of trying it with this number over here. It would be, the next time we have a fire, that's the number of people we have and it's going to be trial by fire," said Watertown Fire Chief Dale Herman. 

Watertown city leaders say that what they'll try with their department depends on the outcome of that consultant study. 

And of course, many changes would hinge on contract talks with firefighters.

Those are expected to begin later this summer.

Part 2 of John Moore's series "Fire And The Future" will air at 6 p.m. Thursday on 7 News This Evening.

See part 1

Friday, October 24, 2014
, Watertown, NY

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