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Firefighters take East End staffing dispute to tribunal

Members of the Bermuda Fire Service Association before a meeting of the employment tribunal over concerns about staffing levels. (Photograph by Owain Johnston-Barnes)

Firefighters have taken their complaints about staffing levels to an employment tribunal, arguing the manpower at Clearwater Fire Station often left them unable to safely operate both a fire truck and an ambulance.

The Bermuda Fire Service Association urged the Employment and Labour Relations Tribunal to make an order that they should only operate the ambulance when they have sufficient staff to run both vehicles, understood to be six people.

The group also called for an order that the Bermuda Fire and Rescue Service should consult with them before making future agreements.

However the BFRS argued that the dispute fell outside the remit of the tribunal and that only four firefighters were needed to operate both vehicles at Clearwater.

During a sitting held yesterday, the tribunal was told that the BFRS was tasked with operating the ambulance service in the east end through a 2016 Memorandum of Understanding with the Bermuda Hospitals Board.

While that MOU has since expired, Dana Lovell, the acting Chief Fire Officer of the BFRS, said both parties have continued to honour its terms through a “gentleman’s agreement”.

Mr Lovell said that while the airport division of the fire service was about 24 firefighters below strength, the structural division of the Clearwater Fire Station had a “full complement” of four firefighters on duty.

He noted that ten fire cadets undergoing training in the UK and the Government had begun to advertise seeking additional cadets to further bolster numbers.

Mr Lovell said the staffing of the fire service was “adequate”, but additional hands on deck would be an improvement.

He told the tribunal that each of the island’s fire stations had a duty strength of four officers, even though only Clearwater had the additional responsibility of an ambulance.

“Operationally when the fire service looked at it we looked at the general area of activity and determined that to include and ambulance as a feature would not be considered to be overly burdensome,” Mr Lovell said.

He added that the Clearwater firefighters were already delivering medical services prior to 2016, but doing so via a fire truck which did not give them the ability to transport patients.

Mr Lovell said he could not say why a similar approach was not taken with the Port Royal Fire Station, other than that it was a Cabinet decision.

He agreed that there were likely a larger number of firefighters in the service when the MOU was signed, although he could not recall how many there were and that budgeted figures for the time – which suggested as many as 98 firefighters – were inaccurate.

Asked about safety concerns voiced by firefighters in written statements, Mr Lovell said he had not heard them prior to the case coming before the tribunal and added that the fire service was being run “safely”.

“I’m not suggesting that we couldn’t have a Rolls-Royce version of it, but it’s safe,” he said. “The red line would be if the numbers at the stations fall below four.”

He added that suspension of the ambulance service in the East End was “not an option” because of the impact it would have.

Chikezie Okereke, the Chief of Emergency at King Edward VII Memorial Hospital, said that at the time of the MOU it was determined that it was “financially not viable” for the BHB to run the ambulance in the east end.

“If you look today when the Government has less money and BHB also has less money, it makes it more difficult,” he said.

Dr Okereke said the objective of the agreement was to get patients to the hospital for treatment faster, and that at the time the BFRS already had staff able to take on the responsibility.

“At the time they already had people who were trained up and funded by another department,” he said.

Dr Okereke also confirmed that KEMH ambulances are staffed with two paramedics when sent out on calls.

Allan Wilkinson, a past president of the FSA, said that executives of the FSA were involved in discussions about the MOU, although he could not recall if there was a meeting with all firefighters on the subject.

“Members were aware that talks were ongoing,” he said. This wasn’t a one-time decision. It was additional to something we were already doing.“

He confirmed that it was often common for the fire service to make a “tandem approach” when responding to road traffic collisions, sending both an ambulance and a fire truck.

Mr Wilkinson also agreed that the minimum standard of staffing for a fire truck was four people, but said not all collisions required two people in an ambulance and four on a fire truck.

He accepted that the tandem approach could mean a traffic collision in the east end would result in four firefighters responding, a similar collision in the west could result in four firefighters and two EMTs. The tribunal is set to meet again on Friday.

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Published February 07, 2023 at 11:01 am (Updated February 07, 2023 at 11:01 am)

Firefighters take East End staffing dispute to tribunal

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