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August 06. 2014 9:28PM

Londonderry turns to social media to get more firefighters

LONDONDERRY — Members of Londonderry’s firefighters’ union are turning to social media as they address the department’s current staffing shortages.

Over the past week or so, the Professional Fire Fighters of Londonderry Local 3160’s Facebook page has been gaining momentum.

On July 29, the union posted a “public safety alert” on their page, informing readers of “inadequate emergency service staffing at Central Station” during the 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. overnight shift.

Similar messages were posted the following day, and the ones after that. By Aug. 3, the page had 524 “likes.” The next day, that number increased by more than 75 people. The page had more than 740 “likes” by Wednesday afternoon. The most pressing issue right now, union officials agreed, is the so-called “drop-down shift,” where overnight staffing is reduced by one staffer at Central Fire Station,to where there are a eight members staffed across the town’s three fire stations.

“Drop-down status is another way of saying increased risk to the firefighters and the public,” posted Derek Martel, who works for the Concord Fire Department.

“This is happening in many towns,” posted Paul Kelly of the Merrimack Fire Department. “Unfortunately, nothing happens and town officials could care less.”

According to Londonderry union officials, the drop-down shifts’ end result is a failure to meet the national standard for operating a fire engine with two members on it, often forcing them to remove one of their engines from service during an overnight shift.

Local 3160 represents Londonderry’s firefighters, EMTs, paramedics and fire lieutenants, while battalion chief positions fall under a separate union.

In a written statement released earlier this week, Local 3160 president Bo Butler said the Facebook updates would continue until further notice.

“These days, social media has the unique ability to reach out and capture a larger target audience than local news,” Butler said. “Because of that, we have capitalized on this resource and will use it as a conduit to help educate and inform our citizens in live time.”

Earlier this spring, Butler and Fire Chief Darren O’Brien brought their concerns to a Town Council meeting.

At that time, O’Brien noted that the staffing on certain shifts had been reduced from ten (including a battalion chief) to nine per shift in response of Londonderry’s town-wide spending freeze. “This appears to be the only way we can work within our operating budget,” he told the council.

Butler further noted that the end result has been a department that’s relying more and more on mutual aid from other nearby communities.

Calls made to O’Brien on Wednesday seeking additional comment weren’t immediately returned.

But Butler on Wednesday said the decision to cut staff was made by the fire chief, not by the town council or town manager.

“We did have a very productive meeting with (O’Brien),” Butler said. “We proposed several ideas that we felt would help keep the Chief within his budget while also sending the message that the number nine is the minimum number the department needs to serve citizens effectively, efficiently and safely.”

The Town Council has already placed an additional $105,000 in the department’s overtime/replacement budget for the current fiscal year, which began July 1.

That hasn’t helped solve the immediate problem, according to Butler.

“Since the beginning of this new budget cycle, if an engine has less than three members on it, it was removed from service,” he said. “We cannot keep doing more with less.”

Local fire officials have yet to meet again with the Town Council, but councilors did express concerns during the May public discussion.

Councilor Joe Green said the staffing shortfalls could essentially prove more costly, since Londonderry has to pay other towns for mutual aid coverage, while Chairman Tom Dolan suggested scheduling a public hearing to get the community’s take on the issue.

However, Councilor John Farrell said any major changes would likely have to wait until the next budget season.

aguilmet@newstote.com


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