Ogdensburg firefighters at odds on decision to reduce response and staffing
Sydney Schaefer, Watertown Daily Times, N.Y.
Jan. 9–OGDENSBURG – The public battle between the city and its fire union continued Friday with a fierce letter from the union’s president, saying City Manager Stephen P. Jellie “wants desperately to have his way, no matter how unsafe or how much resistance he gets.”
In a letter to media Friday, Jason T. Bouchard, president of Ogdensburg Professional Firefighters, Local 1799, called out Mr. Jellie – who is also the fire chief – for opting to have just one fire engine running to all emergency calls.
“There’s so many reasons why his one engine response is a bad idea, and we will eventually pay the price for this thoughtless move. Responding to a structure fire with only one engine, with a backup engine at least 10 minutes behind, could very well have devastating consequences,” Mr. Bouchard wrote. “We’re at a complete loss for how and why this is happening. One man can ride into the city occasionally (he still doesn’t live here) and alone decide to put our members and the community at greater risk.”
Mr. Jellie issued a rebuttal later Friday afternoon, defending his position for using one fire engine.
The use of one fire apparatus maintains crew continuity of at least four personnel, increases initial firefighting effectiveness and maintains a high degree of firefighter safety, he wrote.
“Firefighting is the primary mission of the fire department,” he added.
Mr. Bouchard referenced a state Department of Health document titled “Interim Guidance for Fire Service Agencies to Limit Potential Exposure to COVID-19,” which he says advises the “opposite” of Mr. Jellie’s plan.
He referenced a section titled “Specific Mitigation Strategies for Firefighting Personnel,” which says to “reduce crew size in each vehicle or increase the number of vehicles in a response, to the extent practicable.”
“Our department’s Assistant Chiefs provided a long list of concerns back in October and he didn’t even consider them. How is that leadership? No former Chief of our department would have even thought of instituting such a change after receiving unanimous opposition from department officers and firefighters,” Mr. Bouchard wrote.
Mr. Jellie hit back.
“The only real concern for IAFF Local 1799 President Jason Bouchard and Secretary Ronald Bouchard is preserving the lucrative salaries, benefits and perks they believe they are entitled to in the hastily negotiated, unaffordable contract forced on the taxpayers with the assistance of the previous city council in the final days of their administration after suffering a staggering 2019 election day defeat,” he wrote.
He added that the union’s concern for the organization’s staffing level is “not genuine as indicated by their lack of effort in acting upon two recent proposals the city offered that would maintain fire department staffing at the level of 24.”
Mr. Jellie has issued two separate contract offers to the union. The first was offered before the new year, which the union promptly rejected in a blistering letter sent to Mr. Bouchard and later shared with media. Mr. Jellie extended a second, and final, offer on Jan. 3, which Mr. Bouchard and the fire union are still considering.
“The proposals also ask President Bouchard and Secretary Bouchard to make concessions to the massive perks and incentives provided to union members in addition to the average cost of $131,000 per firefighter the city pays for salaries, health insurance, retirement and overtime,” Mr. Jellie said in his response Friday.
The city and its fire union have been at odds for more than two months over minimum manning after the city introduced and passed its 2021 budget, which included the elimination of seven firefighter positions.
Mr. Bouchard urged city residents to call their elected officials and “tell them you choose public safety.”
“We hope to stay safe, so we can safely help those in need. And please don’t forget that five firefighters are out of a job because of Steve Jellie. How much damage will we allow this one man to inflict on our community?”
“As City Manager, and Fire Chief, I continue to ask President Bouchard and Secretary Bouchard to do what is right for the city and release the taxpayers from the heavy burden placed on them to afford fire protection, and cease the fear mongering campaign,” Mr. Jellie wrote.
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