Full steam ahead on firefighter shift changes, Vincent Gray says

April 23, 2014

At a Wednesday news conference, Gray brushed off lame-duck concerns and said he would press forward with controversial changes to firefighter deployments. (Mike DeBonis/The Washington Post)

Updated 6:05 p.m. to correct current D.C. firefighter work schedule

Mayor Vincent C. Gray vowed Wednesday to move forward with a deeply controversial proposal to change the way firefighters’ work shifts are arranged, over the objections of at least one of his possible successors.

Last week, the city’s Public Employee Relations Board ruled that the fire department is free to move to a new work schedule of shorter but more frequent shifts — upending the long-standing 24 hours on, 72 hours off schedule that has allowed many firefighters to live hundreds of miles from the city.

“We’re happy with the PERB decision, and we intend to move forward with the implementation of the PERB decision,” Gray (D) said at a Wednesday news conference.

Gray’s top public safety deputy, Paul Quander, said it is crucial that the department move to bring its personnel closer to home to improve readiness for a major disaster. “Our concern all along is that the District of Columbia is unique in that we are a high-target area, so we always have to be prepared for the worst case scenario,” he said. “Having firefighters closer, more readily available will allow us to be better prepared in the event we have to deal with a threat. … The bottom line is, this needs to be done, and we’re going to move aggressively to make sure that we are properly staffed.”

But it is unclear whether Gray will be able to push through the change in his remaining eight months and one week in office. The firefighters union, which has aggressively opposed the plan, says it is considering appeal options, and it says the process of changing the shifts will have to be formally bargained under the current firefighters contract. Moreover, president Ed Smith said, the union believes the D.C. Council will have to approve the shift change before Chief Kenneth B. Ellerbe can move forward with any changes.

“The council needs to look at this closely,” Smith said. “It means fewer firefighters working longer hours, and the city’s ability to recruit and retain emergency personnel is the biggest issue.”

Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), chair of the Public Safety and Judiciary Committee, said the matter will come before lawmakers “one way or the other.” If the Gray administration doesn’t seek legislative approval for the changes, he said he may introduce a bill to maintain the status quo.

The department needs reform, Wells said, but he suggested a mayor who has been rebuked by voters is not the person who can do the reforming. “Doing this in his lame duck status is not a good idea,” he said. “I don’t want to see our firefighters and emergency medical service workers go into a full scale revolt. … If it’s possible to make things worse, this is the wrong time to do it.”

Wells said he would consult with two of his colleagues bidding to succeed Gray, Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) and David A. Catania (I-At Large), before taking action.

Catania said Tuesday that Gray should hold off on making any changes: “The fact that he has the power to take action doesn’t mean he should take action,” he said. “I would hope he would take this opportunity to reach out to the firefighters and reach areas of common ground, not upset an apple cart that quite frankly is already in rough shape.” Bo Shuff, Bowser’s campaign spokesman, did not respond to a request for the Democratic nominee’s position on the shift change proposal.

Gray on Wednesday said he had no intention of kicking back and leaving the decision to the next mayor. “The city is entitled to leadership that recognizes that we are here for eight or nine more months,” he said. “There are certain things we have stood for, and we’ll continue to work as long as we’re here.”

Mike DeBonis covers Congress and national politics for The Washington Post. He previously covered D.C. politics and government from 2007 to 2015.
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