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Alderman: Firefighters misjudged council

Evanston Alderman Jane Grover says the firefighters union misjudged the resolve of the City Council to stick with the austerity budget it adopted earlier this year.

Grover, 7th Ward, interviewed this morning at a Bike to Work Week promotion at Fountain Square, said the city’s other unions recognized the crisis the city was facing, and agreed to contracts calling for no pay hike this year, an increase in employee health care contributions and unpaid holidays, but that the firefighters union doesn’t seem to have recognized that times have changed.

"It’s a new City Council," she said, referring to the election of five new members, including herself, last year.

Grover said eight of the nine aldermen fully supported the decision by City Manager Wally Bobkiewitz to impose the layoffs, in the face of uncertainty about what an arbitrator’s ruling might eventually cost the city.

She denied that  Bobkiewicz was being vindictive in laying off three firefighters Wednesday from the 110-member department after the contract dispute was sent to binding arbitration.

"That’s not how Wally operates," Grover said.

Grover said the nature of the fire department’s responsibilities has changed over the years, with an increase in demand for ambulance service and a decline in the number of fires in the city.

"Perhaps we need to staff a third ambulance," Grover said, but will have to leave one of the city’s five fire engines or two ladder trucks unstaffed.

Gesturing toward the city’s tallest building, the 1603 Orrington Ave. tower, just across the street from Fountain Square, she said, "We still also need to be ready to deal with the rare event of a high-rise fire — but that’s what we have mutual aid agreements for."

The layoff of three firefighters will reduce staffing from 26 to 25 firefighters per shift. With current staffing levels of three firefighters per engine or truck and two per ambulance, that doesn’t leave enough people to keep all the units in operation.

The city owns a third ambulance, but currently doesn’t routinely staff it. If the third ambulance is needed now, an engine company’s crew switches over to run the ambulance.

Grover said the city’s newest fire station, Station 5 on Central Street in West Evanston, gets relatively few calls for service.

She said that while the national target is for departments to respond to a fire call within four minutes, Evanston now manages to beat that, responding to most calls within 3-and-a-half minutes.

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