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In fight over fire staffing, Ogdensburg union wins appeal

Ogdensburg Fire Department
Ogdensburg Fire Department(WWNY)
Published: Jan. 13, 2022 at 1:01 PM EST
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OGDENSBURG, New York (WWNY) - A State appeals court has decided that public safety is the key issue in the ongoing fight over how many firefighters have to be on duty in the City of Ogdensburg.

That means the firefighter’s union may now be able to take its issues over staffing levels to an arbitrator.

“It’s one for the union, and we’ve needed a win for a while,” said firefighter union president Jason Bouchard.

The firefighters and the city have been at odds over the minimum amount of firefighters required per shift. The firefighter’s contract sets that number at five. City Manager and Fire Chief Stephen Jellie has made cuts to minimum staffing, recently reducing the number to three. Jellie has said it’s a cost saving measure, and has been pressing union members to give up some of their perks and benefits.

The union argues the smaller staffing number puts firefighters’ safety at risk and wants to take the issue to an arbitrator, a neutral third party, to settle the dispute. It lost an earlier court challenge in March of 2021, when State Supreme Court Justice Mary Farley decided the union’s claim wasn’t about firefighter safety, but instead, about job security.

Now, five judges with the Appellate Division have unanimously agreed to toss Farley’s ruling.

In it’s own ruling, the Appellate Division writes:

Although the provisions at issue here do not expressly mention safety as a reason for the minimum staffing requirements, the safety considerations are self-evident from the nature of the work to be performed – the quintessentially dangerous task of addressing conflagrations that, from time to time, beset the community. It goes without saying that, in such situations, having adequate personnel on hand would be essential to ensure firefighter safety as well as success in fighting the fires.

“We’re happy to realize there are those out there who realize how inherently unsafe our jobs are and how much more unsafe it becomes when you make such drastic cuts to manpower and staffing,” Bouchard said.

Bouchard says the city has 30 days to appeal the decision, but he hopes City Manager Jellie will take into consideration that the ruling was unanimous.

Ogdensburg city manager Stephen Jellie wrote in a statement Thursday that “while we strongly disagree” with the decision “the Appellate Court is the ruling entity of the matter.

“The City of Ogdensburg will decide in the near future if it will make application to the NYS Court of Appeals or if it will proceed to the arbitration phase of the grievance process as ordered,” Jellie wrote.

Jellie also argues the decision “affirms the City’s authority to establish the overall size and structure of the fire department and is well within its legal right to take the action it has to date, with the exception of reducing the daily minimum staffing.”

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