Detroit fire union files unfair labor charge over response policy

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News
Detroit firefighters battle a blaze in a row of abandoned homes on Garland Street in Detroit.

Detroit — The city's fire union has filed an unfair labor charge over a controversial response policy that dictates when firefighters use lights and sirens. The union contends the policy was unilaterally imposed without regard for the bargaining unit or the public. 

The Detroit Fire Fighter Association filed its complaint Friday with the Michigan Employment Relations Commission alleging the city violated its duty to bargain under the Public Employment Relations Act with unilateral changes to terms and conditions of employment without bargaining in good faith.

The association's president, Mike Nevin, said the policy is a "public safety failure" and he "will not stop until it's corrected."

"This just shows the absolute disregard for the bargaining unit and the public," Nevin said Monday. "The mayor better take a good, hard look at what's going on here. I'm not playing around."

Detroit Fire Commissioner Eric Jones put the new system in place in August that classifies runs by two codes: one for emergent runs, which uses lights and sirens, and the other for non-emergent calls, which does not.

Jones has argued that disregarding traffic signals and speed limits with the activation of lights and sirens for every single run — even when it's not urgent — is unnecessarily dangerous. 

Jones and his staff have noted the department receives 400 to 500 requests for fire-related incidents per week. About 50 percent, they contend, are non-life-threatening.

During a council committee session last month, the fire administration said the department had 17 firefighter-involved crashes in 2017.

But the union has detailed dozens of runs that have been dispatched improperly since the code system went into place and warns it could endanger the public and Detroit's firefighters.

Detroit Corporation Counsel Lawrence Garcia called the union's labor charge "baseless."

"The new policy keeps firefighters and the community safer and is supported by FEMA and the International Association of Firefighters," Garcia said in a Monday statement.

"The policy change in question does not violate the collective bargaining agreement in any way, and the fire commissioner and his administration were well within their authority to implement it. We look forward to the (Michigan Employment Relations Commission) hearing on the matter.”

No date has yet been set for the hearing.

Mayor Mike Duggan has said he regards Jones' measure as "sound policy." On Monday, Duggan's spokesman, John Roach, reiterated the mayor still stands behind it. 

Jones last month said his team had tweaked several categories within the new code system but maintained that the substance of the policy would not be changing. 

In a September radio interview, Harold A. Schaitberger, the general president of the International Association of Firefighters, called the policy "ridiculous" and "unacceptable."

In its complaint, the union notes the policy was altered on Oct. 5 and "later dates" without notifying or bargaining with the firefighter association or providing timely responses to requests for information on the revisions.

Fire union leaders also sought a special conference with Jones to address the policy, but he refused, the complaint says.

From here, Nevin said the complaint will be heard by a mediator who will then make a ruling on whether the policy violated the union contract.