Less than a year ago, Omaha's then-Mayor Jim Suttle voiced reservations in signing the city's first fire contract in six years.
“Say some prayers. We're gonna need it,” he said, pointing in part to a provision that created a new paramedic training class he claimed would cost millions.
Among the council members who negotiated that contract: current Mayor Jean Stothert, who at the time called Suttle's comments “flawed and misleading.”
But for the past few weeks, she has acted to cut back the class that contract created.
Last week, Stothert reached a tentative deal to reduce the paramedic class from 48 to nine, saving the city about $4 million. Had Stothert and the Omaha fire union not reached an agreement, the mayor was prepared to lay off 19 firefighters.
Speaking Friday, Stothert said that she and her negotiations committee members while on the council — Councilmen Pete Festersen and Chris Jerram — believed that the class wouldn't have an additional cost.
The idea came from a meeting between fire union President Steve LeClair and former Fire Chief Mike McDonnell, she said, after the council committee told them they could negotiate over “non-economic, operational” issues.
“We were led to believe they could do it within the budget they had,” she said. “We took them for their word ... that it would not cost us any money.”
She said she still believes the Fire Department could have stayed within its budget under the contract. But when Suttle hired a class of 47 fire recruits — specifically to offset the loss of current staff to paramedic training — she said that was no longer possible.
LeClair said there should have been no doubt that the training would cost money.
“The firefighters certainly knew there would be a cost associated with this amount of training,” he said.
For years, McDonnell had tried to increase the ranks of paramedics. Since about 2006, LeClair said, fire recruits had to agree to take paramedic training, if asked, during their first five years of service.
Those agreements wound up being key to filling the paramedic classes. Only about half the firefighters who signed up for the class did so on a volunteer basis.
“Some view it as an obligation, and it is,” LeClair said. “... Many, however, view the training as an opportunity to expand their firefighter skill set.”
Some firefighters have no interest in paramedic training. For others, it's a calling.
The cost of the paramedic training class wasn't significant on its own. Indeed, Omaha has long offered such classes.
But the contract stipulated that firefighters would be pulled off of 24-hour schedules to attend classes during a full-time 40-hour workweek.
That requirement was new, and created vacancies to keep the department staffed at legally required levels. And that meant paying overtime — time and a half — to what were generally more well-compensated employees.
LeClair said the training plan stemmed from McDonnell's desire to have a paramedic on every firetruck. The current contract calls for two paramedics on each of the city's medic units. The city has 15 medic units, though one could be put out of service.
Most of the time, trucks respond to emergencies sooner and have to wait for a medic unit to arrive.
All firefighters are trained emergency response technicians. Paramedics can offer more care — such as administering drugs, using defibrillators and setting up IVs.
Interim Fire Chief Bernard Kanger said the paramedic training class was unnecessary.
Training 48 paramedics a year “was an excessive number,” he said. “It put us far above the number of medics we need to operate here in the city.”
The Fire Department has 241 trained paramedics. Once the current training classes wrap up, it will have 289.
To have two paramedics on each medic unit and one on each other piece of equipment during all three shifts, Kanger said, takes 195 paramedics.
Practically, that number would have to be a little higher, Kanger said, to deal with injuries, vacations and other types of leave.
“We didn't see the need to continue with this very aggressive paramedic training program,” Kanger said. “It just gave us too many.”
Paramedics come with a cost beyond training. Certified paramedics get 5 percent of their salary in specialty pay, whether or not they're assigned to paramedic duty. If they're working as a paramedic, specialty pay bumps to 13 percent.
A class of nine paramedics will ensure that the city can keep an adequate number even if there are some retirements, Kanger said.
“We've thought this out,” he said. “We've demonstrated we're sincere about staying on budget.”