GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A bill is moving forward at the Michigan Capitol that union leaders say will help address statewide firefighter shortages.
The House Labor Committee cleared HB 4688 on Friday, paving the way for a full house vote in the near future.
The bill would require minimum staffing levels to be discussed during collective bargaining negotiations between firefighter unions and their employers.
Matthew Sahr, the president of the Michigan Professional Firefighters Union, said many fire departments around the state are short on firefighters.
“The life and property of our residents is our mission,” Sahr said. “With the proper staffing, we can do a better job at protecting them.”
Michigan has 50 firefighters per 100,000 residents, Sahr said. That’s about less than half the number of firefighters compared to surrounding states like Indiana, Ohio and Illinois.
Sahr pointed out the Wyoming Fire Department as an example of a department with disproportionate staffing compared to its population.
“Very few firefighters considering they have a community of over 75,000 people,” Sahr said. “They’re extremely understaffed. There’s a lot of cities like Wyoming across this entire state.”
The staffing shortages have forced firefighters to do a lot of overtime, Sahr said.
“You’re adding to that stress level and quite frankly sleep deprivation and multiple other issues that come along with that,” he said.
Not having enough staff can present challenges for firefighters when they’re called to duty, Sahr said.
“It’s fighting the fire, searching for the victim or ventilating the roof to get that smoke and gas out of there to make the conditions more tenable for our firefighters to search for people that may be trapped,” Sahr said. “We have to sacrifice one of those if we don’t have enough people on scene.”
The Michigan Association of Fire Chiefs told News 8 it’s opposing the bill but declined to comment.
The Michigan Municipal League issued a statement Friday saying the bill would have a “disastrous impact on local government operations.”
“If passed, HB 4688 could place local governments in a difficult, or impossible, situation to maintain sufficient fund balances because unions will argue in arbitration (where these negotiations will inevitably end up) that funds can be spent to support increases to staffing levels because parks and recreation programs, maintenance of roads, and other matters that create or maintain a sense of place can be cut to do so,” the league wrote.
The Mackinac Center for Public Policy has also argued it would increase costs for local governments.
“At minimum, this will increase the costs and complexity of negotiations between public bodies and their unions. Practically, however, requiring staffing levels to be a topic of negotiation is likely to drive needless spending on additional positions that are not necessary for public bodies to perform their essential functions,” the group’s director of labor policy wrote in September.
The House Fiscal Agency also concluded in a September report that the bill could result in higher costs.
“The bill could potentially increase staffing costs to the state, local school districts, intermediate school districts (ISDs), and public school academies (PSAs),” the report reads. “Any fiscal impacts would be directly related to whether any collective bargaining negotiations result in agreements pertaining to minimum staffing levels that raise current staffing levels in any state offices or schools.”
Sahr responded that any claims that the bill would increase costs are “misinformation.” He countered that the bill just allows staffing to be discussed, and it doesn’t force cities to add more staff if they can’t afford to do so.
“We as firefighters are invested in the communities we serve,” Sahr said. “We would never want to hurt the community and say, ‘Hey, let’s do something they can’t afford.’”
Sahr said an arbitrator would be the only one who could impose staffing increases if cities don’t agree to them because of increased costs.
“An arbitrator’s No. 1 factor for deciding any issue is going to be the ability to pay,” Sahr said. “We are not asking for any relief from that.”