HARPER WOODS — After months of working with a skeleton crew in the Fire Department, four laid-off firefighters are headed back to work this month after winning arbitration, but that wasn’t the only big news for that department.
The layoffs were due to financial difficulties the city has been facing, but Fire Chief Sean Gunnery received some good news last month concerning a major grant that will help fund those four firefighters for a two-year period.
“I am pleased to see the firefighters coming back,” Gunnery said in an email. “It has been a very difficult summer. We had many days with one firefighter on duty. There were multiple occasions where I had to work … alone to keep the department open. The manpower prior to the arbitrator’s decision was five personnel. We have two firefighters off on injuries.”
The news of the Staffing for Adequate Fire & Emergency Response (SAFER) grant funding came at around the same period as the arbitrator’s decision, but Gunnery had applied for the grant about five months ago.
“While the SAFER grant does not cover all of the associated costs for each of the firefighters, it does provide reimbursement for wages and partial benefits,” acting City Manager Randolph Skotarczyk stated in a memo to the mayor and council. The funding “results in the grant covering 76 percent of the employment costs for the four employees.”
That percentage doesn’t take into consideration any overtime costs, according to the memo.
This grant will provide approximately $519,000 to help with wages and some of the cost of benefits.
“During these times of economic difficulty, any financial assistance is welcome,” Skotarczyk stated in the memo. “Certainly the need for further budgetary cuts would still exist, and the acceptance of the grant does carry inherent financial limitations.”
Therefore, Skotarczyk pointed out that the city would continue to need to look to contract reductions throughout the city for more savings.
The city is looking at everything, from vendor payments to other savings. They are hoping to be able to make the needed cuts without affecting city services.
“It’s a difficult balancing act right now,” Skotarczyk said, adding that they are putting residents first in their decisions.
Skotarczyk said the city disagreed with the arbitrator’s decision, but he was happy for the firefighters that were getting their jobs back.
He said the city’s decision for the layoffs was based on finances.
“We respect his authority to make that decision,” Skotarczyk said of the arbitrator.
Gunnery said he was relieved at the news of the grant funding, but not surprised “because many cities with less financial stress were receiving this grant prior to us.”
This isn’t the only attempt Gunnery has made to find ways to bring in funding for his department.
“This is the fourth successful grant I have submitted,” he said in the email. “In the past six years, we received a grant for an exhaust removal system, a new self-contained breathing apparatus and video conferencing equipment.
“The SAFER (grant) is $519,000 and the other three grants totaled $105,000 for a total of $624,000 in grants during my tenure as fire chief,” he said.
Gunnery wasn’t the only one happy to see the four firefighters heading back to work after being laid off since last spring.
The local firefighters union posted the news on its Facebook page.
“Thanks again to everyone for the thoughts and prayers,” the Facebook post stated. “It has been a morale and financial hardship for our four guys, but this is a joyous weekend! This is the first weekend our four laid-off guys are back to work! We are so incredibly happy to have all our guys back to service the residents and visitors of Harper Woods.”
Fire Union President David Micallef said in an email that they “are excited to be able to more effectively serve the residents of Harper Woods as a Fire/EMS Department.”
He still has concerns about the city’s use of private ambulance service. He feels dispatching procedures need to be changed to activate the fire department first before contacting the private company for service.
Micallef has voiced concerns about response times for some time despite regular assurance from the outside company that the response times are in line with the times promised the city.
“We are 70 percent of the time closer and consistently arriving before the private company even after two minutes or greater of a delay in being activated,” he said. “This is a simple fix that we hope to have the city change, because in a medical emergency, two minutes can be the difference between a positive outcome and a catastrophic one.”
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