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December 25. 2013 10:19PM

Londonderry Fire Department says too many shifts go unfilled

LONDONDERRY — Local fire officials raised concerns about current staffing levels and lack of sufficient overtime funding during Monday night's public hearing on the coming year's budget.

Firefighter Bruce Hallowell told the Town Council that though the department currently schedules 10 staff members for each shift, the reality is that unplanned sick or vacation leave often leaves as few as seven staffers working a shift.

It's a major safety concern for the Londonderry Fire Department, with several members telling councilors they feel the department sometimes gets sold short by the town's attempts to maintain a level budget.

"I understand the council's prerogative to maintain the tax rate," Hallowell said on Monday. "But we're very concerned."

Fire officials said having 10 personnel members on duty is the minimum needed to operate the town's three fire stations, amounting to roughly one firefighter on duty for every 2,427 of the town's residents.

The Londonderry Fire Department receives roughly 10 emergency calls each day, according to Hallowell.

"If we remove one or two of those 10, and we do have a nasty habit of dropping down that way, we're left with no ability to serve the public when a second call comes in," Hallowell said.

Time is of the essence when racing to a fire scene, he said, adding that a fire typically doubles in size every 90 seconds.

"Fire damage is irreversible, and time is our enemy," Hallowell added. "You can't ask someone to schedule his or her 911 calls and dropping below ten personnel puts us all at risk."

Fire Chief Darren O'Brien said that based on department strategic plan conducted in 2010, 14 firefighters per shift would be an ideal staffing level for Londonderry, though simply hiring more firefighters isn't enough to solve the problem.

"Do we need more firefighters? Yes, absolutely," O'Brien said. "But that's not going to make our overtime problem go away."

The fire chief said it would cost an additional $204,000 to fund overtime pay needed to fill shift vacancies at times when the staffing level drops below 10 firefighters.

"Since last fall, for various reasons we're often seeing only seven firefighters per shift," O'Brien said. "When someone else has to come in to cover that shift on their day off, they're paid overtime."

Under the firefighters' current collective bargaining agreement, vacation days may be used at any time, with a maximum of three staff members per shift allowed to take a vacation day.

Such requests are approved on a first-come, first-served basis, according to the fire chief.Town Manager Tom Freda said the fire department usually overspends its overtime budget, as has been the case for the past several years.In 2007 overtime costs were about $16,000 over budget. By 2012, overtime costs had increased more than sevenfold, at $120,000.

During the March 2008 Town Meeting, voters approved the firefighters' current contract, which brought the work week down to 42 hours from 48 hours though the salaries remained the same.

"This change isn't necessarily to blame, but it is a contributor to the overtime issue we have now," Councilor Tom Dolan said. "And I think the best way to address it is through the collective bargaining process, because I just don't see how we can address this via the operating budget."

Fire Lt. Bo Butler, president of the town's firefighter's union, said the funding issue is a loaded one, as it presents a challenge each budget season.

"To fund the (staff) replacement line item appropriately, we need another $204,000," Butler said.

"But I don't have $204,000," countered Council Chairman John Farrell. "So you tell me where I'm supposed to take it from?"

Further discussions on the budget will take place Jan. 20, when the second public budget hearing is scheduled. The Town Council and the Budget Committee will hold budget warrant vote on Jan. 23.

aguilmet@newstote.com


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