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Ire fanned by Mpls. fire department sick-leave report

  • Article by: RANDY FURST
  • Star Tribune
  • July 30, 2012 - 10:44 PM

A study designed to help Minneapolis evaluate its fire department at a time of budget cuts and low morale has only inflamed an acrimonious situation by including a statistical error that overstated the amount of sick time firefighters were taking.

"We feel as bad about this as anyone," said Kent Greene, senior vice president with Emergency Services Consulting International. "We stand behind the report. It is an issue. It will be corrected."

Greene acknowledged the error at a City Council committee meeting on Monday, but not before the Minneapolis Firefighters Union had denounced the $147,000 study as a "waste of money" and "a slur on our membership" that painted union members as "lazy and malingerers."

In a letter last week to Greene that included a spreadsheet detailing the error, Mark Lakosky, the union president, wrote, "For a department that has suffered low morale because of unfriendly political bosses, the last thing we need is malicious lies about how we performed our jobs."

City leaders defended the study and said they still have concerns about firefighters' use of sick time. In an interview, City Council Member Betsy Hodges said it was good that Greene corrected the report's mistake. She said Greene said "we were getting excellent service, and I agree," and she added that the "red flag" for her was that firefighters were calling in sick on Saturday more often than any other day of the week. "I think we need to reform the system," she said.

The department has been embroiled in a debate over whether the city has enough firefighters to ensure the safety of citizens and firefighters.

The study, made public July 3, caused an uproar among firefighters when it asserted that they were averaging 261 hours of sick time per year, and that all personnel in the department, including non-sworn staff, were averaging 292 hours.

Greene said that shortly after a Star Tribune editorial published that statistic on July 17, he got a call from Fire Chief John Fruetel wondering where Greene got his numbers. Greene said his office reviewed the statistics and discovered the error.

The 261 sick leave hours for firefighters and 292 for all personnel represented three-year totals, Greene said, and the study's authors had neglected to divide the data by three. Firefighters actually averaged 87 hours of sick leave per year. Since most firefighters work a 24-hour shift, that represents about 3.6 sick days per year.

City officials tried to put the best face they could on the report.

A news release issued Monday afternoon said, "New report helps city and fire department leaders plan for the future" and stressed that Greene told the council that the department "operates efficiently and performs very well with excellent response times, while recognizing that like most other fire departments across the country, it faces challenges."

The news release cited the error in the third paragraph from the end, adding that the report showed "sick leave usage is higher on Saturdays and in the summer months." Fruetel said he was "looking at other options for requesting vacation time to help address this issue."

Joe Mattison, secretary of the firefighters union, downplayed the issue of sick leave on weekends. He said it spikes on only a couple of Saturdays. "This is a minor issue, compared to the bigger overall issue of insufficient staffing and an increase in injuries," he said.

Council members directed Fruetel to return in a few weeks with a report on what action he had taken on the study's recommendations.

Randy Furst • 612-673-4224

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