The Budget Committee met with Acting Fire Chief Darren O’Brien to discuss the issue of overtime, and heard that the department had been underfunded for some time. O’Brien told the committee at its Thursday, April 25 meeting that the base salary for a Firefighter/EMT (Emergency Medical Technician) – not a Paramedic – is $40,788, and including benefits, it is almost $80,000.
“One firefighter is going to do us no good because we have four different battalions, so we would need four firefighters, which would cost about $316,000,” O’Brien said. Committee member Mark Aronson said the town’s overall overtime budget is $1.3 million and the fire department’s share of that was 52 percent.
“Our overtime budget this year was $536,739. If the overtime budget was at $730,000 to $740,000 a year, that would maintain a staffing level of 10,” O’Brien said. Aronson said that if the overtime budget were $740,000, “it wouldn’t cover the whole thing because you don’t know everything that’s going on, but it would make more sense, I think, to get another set of four people in so that the overtime budget would look less and be part of the operating budget, and it would look better for you guys and would give you the backup people that you need,”
O’Brien said that adding four new personnel would also include overtime, as the new personnel would accrue sick time and vacation time as well. “If there was a little more in the budget, say we took $400,000 from the overtime budget and put it into the regular budget, all of a sudden it wouldn’t look as bad,” Aronson said.
Committee member Dan Lekas said they had put adding four new firefighters on the ballot a couple of years ago and it didn’t pass. “I think with the right numbers, I think we can get it. If it’s worded right, people will realize that in the long term it’s a better economy,” Aronson responded.
Committee chairman Chris Melcher asked O’Brien if $316,000 would cover four new firefighters and O’Brien said it would. He then asked if it would bring down the overtime to what was already budgeted or eliminate it.
Melcher said it wouldn’t eliminate overtime, especially in the first year because of training costs. Aronson said it would be better in the second and consequent years and O’Brien agreed. Finance Director Susan Hickey said an analysis could be done to determine cost and overtime numbers.
“It bears repeating again and again and again, overtime in this case is not that we’re calling in two extra people to come in and wash the trucks today,” Melcher said. “It’s two people that called out sick or that are on vacation that are needed to come in in order to fight a fire and be on shift. We’re talking about replacement time, not overtime.”
O’Brien said Melcher was correct in that assessment. “When somebody works in an office and needs to be out, when they come back, they have a larger stack of work on their desk that has to done,” O’Brien explained. “When there’s a firefighter missing, we’ve lost a functional task on the force,”
O’Brien added that to drop below 10 in staffing was, in his opinion, unsafe for his personnel and for the town as far as coverage.
Melcher said the former fire chief was told last year that “you’d better not go over budget or there would be an issue, so my question is why, if we know there’s an overtime issue, why don’t we budget for it?” O’Brien said that over the years money had been removed from the overtime budget and was replaced recently to bring it back up to $539,000.
O’Brien added that firefighters previously had a 48-hour work week and through negotiations with the union, created a 42-hour work week, thus creating an additional battalion and the need of staffing for 10. He said that ideally staffing should be 14 to 16 firefighters per shift. He also said that in some cases, the Town of Londonderry was requesting mutual aid three times more than it was providing it, and some towns had been getting together “with their town fathers and saying that we’re not providing mutual aid, we’re subsidizing their (Londonderry’s) fire department.”
Committee member Gary Vermillion said he was pro safety and would also like to see full staffing of the fire department. He said as a result of current staffing, someone he knew who had a fire in their house had to wait a while. “It’s not a good feeling,” Vermillion said. Vermillion then asked about the coming of Woodmont Commons, a 600-plus development, and O’Brien said the fire department has looked into the issue and submitted information to the Planning Board.
O’Brien said that if he is still Acting Chief, he will submit a working budget that would be able to support staffing needs, and emphasized that the department has been underfunded for a long time.