The Fire Department budget discussion with the Town Council became heated when fire union president Bo Butler said he would hold the Council responsible if negative effects resulted from Council inaction on the department’s budget request of $205,000 to fund firefighters. Town Council Chairman John Farrell angrily put the budget book on the dais and demanded Butler show him where he should take the money. “Do I take it from the library and only have it open three days a week? Do I take it from public works? Show me. Show me where the money is,” Farrell demanded.
The Fire Department budget discussion at the Monday, Dec. 23 meeting began when Firefighter Paramedic Bruce Hallowell spoke as a Londonderry taxpayer. He said he and his wife are expecting their first child in February and when it was time for them to buy a home, the decision was made for it to be in Londonderry because of its schools, services “and true community atmosphere.”
He said that he wanted to voice his concerns about the fire department budget and the discussions that have taken place regarding it.
Hallowell said the town needed to maintain 10 personnel per shift at each of its three fire stations to be able to be at a level of three firefighters and one shift commander to meet the needs of the department.
“With our town’s population of 24,269 citizens, it equates to one firefighter for every 2,427 people. To put it in perspective, there are more maintenance and janitorial staff on during the day at the school department than there are firefighters and paramedics protecting your community,” Hallowell said.
Hallowell said the fire department receives 3,400 emergency calls a year, which is just under 10 per day. He said the most common call is for medical emergencies and 49 percent of the time they receive back-to- back calls. That means six out of 10 of the town’s personnel are on calls.
Hallowell explained that a fire doubles in size every 90 seconds, and if a patient stops breathing or the heart stops, irreversible brain damage occurs after four minutes.
“Time is our enemy,” he said. “The fire department has reached its service delivery capacity. We have reorganized, redistributed personnel, developed new response policies and streamlined the number of apparatus responding to calls, but at the end of the day, you can’t ask people to schedule their 911 calls, and you can’t ask people not to die while you’re trying to get qualified emergency responders to them.”
Hallowell added that the fire department is one of the largest revenue generators in town, bringing in $550,000 with ambulance services.
Farrell responded that it was his understanding that the fire department did not want a warrant article requesting more firefighters.
Town Manager Kevin Smith said he understood that Fire Chief Darren O’Brien knew it to be either replacement funding or more firefighters, and would choose replacement costs if it came to one or the other.
Farrell said Councilor Tom Freda had suggested that two firefighters be added at the half-year mark so that for the cost of one firefighter, the department would get two.
“This would send us in a direction to be able to staff the fire department more appropriately going forward,” Farrell said.
O’Brien said he misunderstood and took it as two separate issues. He noted the fire department is hurting as far as staffing levels and said that more firefighters would aid the problem with replacement costs but it wasn’t going to go away.
Councilor Joe Green said his interest was to get the overtime costs under control.
According to past conversations with O’Brien, the overtime is a misnomer. There are two categories, overtime, when personnel have to cover extra shifts, and replacement costs, when a firefighter is out due to vacation, sickness or injury and has to be replaced.
Freda said the year the department was staffed at 10, it was over budget by $200,000 in replacement costs.
Freda said he saw three possibilities for that occurrence – the Town Council did not provide enough funding, too much overtime is occurring, or a combination of those two.
“With all due respect, it’s not appropriate for me to vote for an increase in overtime until I know what the answer is. The taxpayers deserve an answer – why is there an overtime problem,” Freda said.
O’Brien said vacation and sick time were unfunded liabilities. “If you were able to take everyone’s accrued vacation and put that into a budget, that fire department budget would be trillions of dollars,” O’Brien said.
“Regardless of when they take it, you know the maximum they’re going to take, you should be able to tell us what the replacement cost is going to be and that’s my question. I would like to know, is it really the Town Council underfunding it or is there some other cause?” Freda asked.
Councilor Tom Dolan said he looks at the council as policy makers and in that role, it is up to the Council to make the policy on how many people are needed to protect the community. He sees overtime management as the responsibility of the town manager.
“If you have to move money around within the budget to meet the day-to-day tactical decisions, then you make those decisions,” Dolan said.
Town Budget Committee Chairman Chris Melcher asked if Londonderry was meeting the standards of other towns in the area. Fire Battalion Chief Jim Roger said the problem goes back years. He said the former administration in the fire department had made cuts when asked, and the department has not fully recovered from those cuts.
Melcher asked if there would be a difference if the department went back to a 48-hour schedule from the current 42 hours, and O’Brien said it would cost $333,000 more.
Farrell noted the department was up $400,000 in overtime and they were trying to figure out how to make it work.
Dolan said that the structural change made in 2008/2009 when the department went from 48 hours to 42 hours occurred when the issues of overtime first became a problem. He said that is more than a coincidence.
Dolan also said the way to address the problem is via the collective bargaining process.
Councilor Jim Butler said there are several open yet funded positions where the money could come from, several in the police department. Police Chief William Hart said hiring is a slow process, with an 18 to 24 month lag time.
Fire Lieutenant Bo Butler, who is Councilor Jim Butler’s son, said he would personally hold the Council responsible, “should the town refuse to fund its fire department appropriately to provide the best possible service to the town while keeping it safe. Gentlemen, there are few guarantees in life, but this is one of them.”
Budget Committee member Dan Lekas said the discussion was getting personal, but Farrell disagreed.
Farrell said the budget was a bottom line budget and that Smith and O’Brien needed to get together and sort it out.
“This Council takes the safety of this community very seriously,” Farrell said. “This Councilor takes it very seriously – that why it’s an emotional issue with me. When someone makes the statement that they are going to hold us responsible, believe it or not, the voters hold us responsible. We’re on the same side.”
No resolution was reached.