District wins ruling on changing firefighters’ schedules; union vows to continue court fight


D.C. Fire Chief Kenneth Ellerbe, shown earlier this month, said the savings would allow him to add more much-needed paramedics. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

An arbitration board has ruled that the D.C. fire department can implement a new work schedule with more frequent but shorter shifts, which the chief says will save money and improve services but the union contends will ruin morale and upend the lives of firefighters.

The D.C. Public Employee Relations Board issued its decision Thursday, adding that it would publish a detailed, written opinion later.

The 1,800-member labor organization has been fighting the proposal since 2011.

The board had previously ruled in favor of the District; the latest decision was a response to the labor group’s appeal. The president of D.C. firefighters’ Local 36 said Friday that his organization will move the fight to the Court of Appeals.

But for now, the ruling allows Chief Kenneth B. Ellerbe to alter the current system, in which firefighters work for 24 hours and then have three days off. Under the new schedule, firefighters would work three consecutive 12-hour shifts during the day, followed by one day off, then three consecutive 12-hour shifts at night, followed by three days off. The chief has maintained that the new schedule will allow him to save $38 million by cutting the size of the force through attrition.

Officials had previously said 400 firefighter positions could be culled in four years, but in an interview Friday, Ellerbe would say only that the department would shrink.

The chief said the savings would allow him to add more much-needed paramedics. D.C. Council members have repeatedly criticized Ellerbe for failing to hire enough paramedics during a period of slow response times and equipment failures.

“I think this is long overdue,” Ellerbe said. “It’s a win for the city.” Noting that many firefighters live far from the District, he said that the new scheduling might require them “to drive in more often. In reality, we need them here, and we need them close.”

It would also mean that firefighters would work an equivalent of 22 days a month instead of the current eight.

But Edward C. Smith, president of the firefighters union, said firefighters now work an average of 42 hours a week, even if three days are combined into one shift. It was clear Friday that the two sides remained far apart.

Ellerbe said his plan means that when firefighters are held on overtime, they’re working beyond a 12-hour shift; now, when they have to work longer, they’re adding to a 24-hour shift.

Smith said the new schedule is dangerous because the more frequent shifts will make firefighters overtired.

“We’re going to continue to fight this,” Smith said. “It will decrease the size of the workforce, and [it] makes the city more vulnerable.”

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