Monday’s transfers of more than 160 of Philadelphia’s 200 fire department paramedics will benefit them and the city in the long run, according to Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers, despite any short-term inconvenience.
On Friday, Ayers contacted the Northeast Times to respond to accusations by the president of the city’s firefighters and paramedics union that the personnel moves were the fire department leadership’s way of retaliating against medics following a years-old dispute over their overtime pay.
An article detailing the complaints by Bill Gault, president of International Association of Fire Fighters Local 22, appeared in the Jan. 4 edition of the Times. But the commissioner’s office did not respond to the newspaper’s requests for comment in time for inclusion in that article.
“This rotation process is not something that’s bad. It’s positive,” Ayers said Friday. “We’re using the fire officers model, which we’ve been doing for years and years, decades even. Eventually, it will promote more flexibility and professionalism [among medics].”
Ayers denied Gault’s claims that the personnel moves were driven by spite over the medics’ Fair Labor Standards Act class-action suit, which they won in December 2008, forcing the city to pay them millions in back overtime pay.
“Bill Gault is the president [of Local 22]. His job is to take care of his members. And my job is to take care of our members, too,” Ayers said. “And sometimes, there’s conflict.”
After the lawsuit, the fire department modified medics’ work schedules to meet the requirements of the FLSA while trying to minimize the city’s overtime expenditures.
Previously, medics had rotated between 10-hour day shifts and 14-hour night shifts. On the new schedule, medics began working steady 12-hour shifts. About half work seven days every two weeks, while the others work seven nights every two weeks.
The fire department still allots overtime to cover for its 25 vacant medic positions, but another 15 new hires are now in training at the fire academy, Ayers said.
The department first notified paramedics of the planned personnel moves in 2009 and asked each to submit a list of five requested assignments, Ayers said. The department’s leadership intended to give all medics equal opportunity to work days or nights. Generally, day work is in higher demand than night work, according to the commissioner.
The plan is to conduct similar personnel changes every three years. Fire and medic officers of the rank of lieutenant and above are subject to the same triennial transfer process.
Gault had argued that the actual desire among rank-and-file medics to change shifts or change assignments was minimal. By his count, 150 medics requested to remain in their same unit and shift. Ayers claims that the number was more like 100, or about half of all medics.
Meanwhile, the commissioner said, 73 percent of medics were given their first or second choice of assignment, while 76.4 percent were given one of their top three choices.
“When you open the whole thing up and look at the bigger picture, [medics] really have an opportunity to make choices,” Ayers said.
Gault further argued that the department’s emergency service will suffer as medics acclimate to new neighborhoods and new partners. Ayers retorted that city ambulances have GPS systems and that most paramedics are familiar with the city and its hospitals, anyway, regardless of the neighborhood.
“Many requested [to work] in the areas where they live, so they drive it every day,” Ayers said. ••