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January 10. 2014 12:08AM

Town weighs options for firefighter staffing issues

Londonderry officials are facing the dilemma of either adding more firefighters or planning for more overtime in the coming fiscal year.

During Monday night's Town Council meeting, councilors considered several options in response to staffing and overtime concerns raised by citizens and fire officials last month.

Council Chairman John Farrell said the town currently spends about $17 million of the town's $28 million operating budget on public safety in general, which encompasses the fire, police and public works budgets.

"Right now we're struggling to figure out what's next," Farrell said.

Fire Chief Darren O'Brien said the fire department currently has four battalions and firefighters have been working a 42-hour workweek since 2008, when voters approved a contract that included a workweek reduction from 48 hours.

Since then, fire overtime costs have been on the rise. The town has spent $750,000 on firefighter overtime this year.

Farrell wondered whether hiring more firefighters would prove more cost-efficient in the long run.

"If the balance is we have to eventually hire 18 more firefighters, then that's something we have to try to figure out," he said. "But honestly, I don't know the answer to that right now."

Councilors said it would cost approximately $100,000 per firefighter to fund salary, benefits and training.

Noting that increasing the fire department's roster would probably need to be a gradual process, Town Manager Kevin Smith presented several different options for next year's budget, including hiring one to four new firefighters in the coming year."An additional scenario would be to simply put out a warrant article funding the additional costs of overtime," Smith told the council.O'Brien, who said his primary concern is to "maintain the staffing level of ten firefighters per shift" said he'd be willing to go before voters to pursue the latter option, should the council and town manager agree.

Smith said such a warrant would ask voters to fund $250,000 in fire overtime next year.

"My quick assessment is that looking at the parameters we're working in, the 42-hour work week schedule combined with each firefighter's accrued time and the 10-person per shift staffing requirement, that's what's been causing the overtime spike since 2009," Smith said, noting that over the past five years the town has spent about $2.5 million on fire overtime.

He said further research into the matter indicates that the average firefighter worked about 400 overtime hours last year.

Farrell said he's been in touch with a state fire commissioner and was told that a 42-hour workweek wasn't advisable for the very reasons stated by the town manager.

"I think we've gotten the answers we've been looking for, and we've got the information we need for moving forward," he added. "But we don't have a lot of time."

Further discussions on fire staffing and budget options, followed by a final vote on the town warrant, will take place during the Jan. 20 Town Council meeting.aguilmet@newstote.com


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