Oak Lawn has a new fire chief and a new deputy chief leading the fire department but the rhetoric and strategy for labor negotiations will continue to be based on demands that the union leaders agree to a new minimum manning number that the village has been fighting for in court since 2008.
Recently, Oak Lawn Village Manager, Larry Deetjen, told the Trustees that the village cannot sustain the financial bleeding caused by payments for overtime. The village has used the allure of the carrot and the threat of a stick.
As a carrot, Deetjen has gone so far as to offer a pay out to union members to buy out language that has been in the contract for decades. The union membership rejected the offer and several firefighters accused the village administration of trying to bribe the members with that offer.
Deetjen’s stick came in February when the village canceled a $1.35 million dollar Staffing for Adequate Fire Emergency Response grant (SAFER) that would have hired seven new firefighters, which according to the union would have alleviated the need for so much overtime. Deetjen pulled the plug on the grant when the union wouldn’t agree to a new union wage scale that would have reduced wages.
The decision to cancel the grant may be more harmful to the village’s finances than to the firefighters’ physical and mental health. The union leadership has said that it is willing to compromise but they have called the village’s offers unreasonable.
The new fire chief, Michael Mavrogeorge was introduced to the Village Board of Trustees and appeared to repeat the often stated Deetjen line of rhetoric claiming that fire service has changed over the years and there aren’t as many fires. He claimed three percent of the calls are for fires but the union members have claimed that paramedic and EMS calls have increased every year. Since that speech, the village suffered three high profile fires and firefighters have countered that the nature of firefighting is that you want the firefighters available when you need them to fight the fires. In short, it’s the nature of the job.
Mavrogeorge, who served as a fire chief of a department at an airport, said that change within the department is necessary, making many observers believe that the strategy is not going to change since the chief mentioned that the department needs a sustainable staffing model.
The northern suburb of Mundelein is using a different idea to reduce overtime in its department. The municipality decided to hire three new firefighters after previously eliminating the position of public safety director and hiring a fire chief, deputy fire chief and another firefighter earlier in the year.
During a recent board meeting in Mundelein, the fire chief pointed to various benefits to the idea of increasing the number of firefighters, including reducing overtime that has been used to cover the shifts. He said it was normal for fire departments to have employees out of the rotation due to injuries, military deployment, illnesses, and paid scheduled time off.
Mundelein’s fire chief also said that the hirings will improve the mental and physical health of the firefighters and improve morale.
Mundelein officials told the public that the staffing changes and overtime savings will pay for the firefighters. It is a model that Oak Lawn has been unwilling to adopt.