Upper Arlington's contract with its firefighters may be headed to binding arbitration if negotiations cannot produce a compromise. All 53 union members have voted to reject the current agreement.

Upper Arlington's contract with its firefighters may be headed to binding arbitration if negotiations cannot produce a compromise. All 53 union members have voted to reject the current agreement.

At the Feb. 7 city council meeting, members voted 5-2 in favor of a new contract agreement between the city and the International Association of Fire Fighters local 1521. The initial agreement was based on the recommendations of outside and independent fact finder John Babel Jr.

Council members David DeCapua and Frank Ciotola voted against the agreement, expressing concerns about the ability of the city to afford pay increases of 3 percent for 2011 and 2012, and 2 percent in 2013. At the opening of negotiations, the union had asked for four percent increases each year.

The agreement also included reductions in overtime pay from double-time to time-and-a-half and caps on pension and health care contributions.

But at the center of the union's concerns, according to IAFF 1521 president Lt. Jim Mild, are issues surrounding past practices and minimum manning language.

Mild explained that previous contracts have included language to protect past practices, some of which require maintaining specific staffing levels. The minimum manning language requires four firefighters per truck, which is in line with national safety recommendations for both firefighters and victims, Mild said.

The fact-finder's recommendations removed that language from the current agreement.

"There are recommended standards including a national standard of two-in and two-out," fire division spokesman Dan Kochensparger said. "Before making entry there should be two firefighters ready to make entry and two in standby and support."

This is not a requirement, he said, but the four firefighters per truck makes possible the current service levels that residents are used to.

Both Mild and Kochensparger stated that, even with the current staffing levels, the city relies heavily on mutual-aid response, an agreement with neighboring departments to help fill the gaps when a department doesn't have enough manpower or equipment to respond to an emergency

For the city, every fire call requires mutual aid because the required minimum equipment is two fire engines (the city has one), one ladder truck, one medic truck and a fire chief.

"The last time there were budgetary issues, the city decommissioned one of its two fire engines," Mild said. "Some of the firefighters on that engine were then moved to other equipment and the minimum manning language was put in place to provide the level of safety and service we have today."

According to Kochensparger, there currently is no discussion of fire staff reductions based on the outcome of the union contract, because the 2011 and 2012 budgets are already set for both current staff sizes and programs.

On Feb. 18, Mild and union attorneys met with the city to present a compromise agreement.

"The firefighters came back with a very realistic offer which we'll outline for council," said assistant city manager Joe Valentino. "Our administration thinks there is a lot of common ground but the negotiations are not complete. There are still a couple of points to hammer out but we're very close."

Mild agreed.

"Things went well today and I think some middle ground can be found," he said Friday. "I believe we can come to a settlement before going to arbitration."

This current compromise agreement was to have been presented to city council in an executive session during the Feb. 22 council meeting, after ThisWeek's press deadline.

Valentino said the city is still well within the time frame for negotiating a settlement before transitioning to the binding arbitration process, which can take several months.

The next step will be for city council to decide how it wants to proceed with the current union response. Both the union membership and city council will have to vote to accept any compromise agreement before the contract can be completed.