Options Sought to Pay for Fire Department Over-Expenditures

The Town Council directed the Town Manager and Fire Chief to present this week options for subsidizing an estimated $150,000 over-expenditure by the Fire Department due to unanticipated expenses related to injuries and long-term illnesses.

Londonderry Fire Chief Darren O’Brien said replacement costs associated with vacancies due to injuries, sick leave, vacation leave, and personal leave account for 88 percent of the Department’s overtime costs of $470,337 in FY15 to date.

The average overtime replacement cost per month is $52,259, according to O’Brien. Other overtime costs for off-duty response, concurrent duties such as public outreach and training account for the remaining 12 percent of overtime costs.

In August 2012, the administration adopted a staffing model intended to provide better service to the community and lessen response times to certain districts in town that calls for staffing a firefighter/ paramedic, firefighter EMT (emergency medical technician)  and battalion chief at all three stations, with the battalion commander stationed at Central Station.

And on March 10, the Town voted overwhelmingly in support of hiring an additional three firefighters to help fill in for vacancies and increase staffing levels to 10 firefighters on a 24-hour basis.

Still, the department is running over budget due to unanticipated costs, such as a vacant battalion chief position, which cost the Department $40,953 between September of 2014 and February of 2015.

Long-term injury and sick leave since July of 2014 have cost the department $88,138, and O’Brien said he expects that cost to rise with new injuries and long-term illnesses.

Additionally, the Department saw significant unanticipated expenses due to the need for additional coverage during the winter storms, which cost $16,732; as well as the Hall Road fire at Murray’s Auto Salvage, which cost the department $4,950.

A vacant firefighter position cost the department $12,389; an injury to a battalion chief has cost the Department $7,999 thus far; and additional injury costs are at $5,121, but that amount is also expected to increase.

The total unanticipated funds spent to date total $191,795, with ongoing additional injuries expected to result in an increase in that cost.

O’Brien said had the Department not experienced the unanticipated injuries and long-term illnesses, it would have come in under the Council’s goal of ending February of 2015 at 66.64 percent of overtime costs, with overtime costs at 63.2 percent.

O’Brien told the Council he anticipates a number of future budgetary challenges moving forward, including ongoing long-term sick leave for three employees, the potential for additional injuries, a vacant position for which the Department is in the process of hiring a firefighter, vacation time moving into the summer season and personal leave.

O’Brien said he has implemented a number of changes to address overtime costs, including cost-saving partnerships that allow training to be completed in the Town, the elimination of administrative time, a department-wide spending freeze implemented on Feb. 1 and maintaining a staffing level of nine firefighters on a 24-hour basis.

An additional change O’Brien presented as a potential method of addressing the over-expenditures is continuing to reduce staffing levels by leaving Central Station with administration and communications only, resulting in no emergency apparatus responding from Central Station. The reduction would cause staffing levels to drop to seven personnel, with all emergency resources responding from two substations. Apparatus would be relocated along with certain pieces of apparatus being taken out of service.

O’Brien also suggested the Department “brown-out command staff positions during normal business hours, which would result in not having a dedicated incident commander.

However, without a dedicated incident commander, O’Brien said the risk for additional injuries increases, which would further increase overtime costs.

“I’m looking at the additional changes and I’ve got to tell you, I don’t support them,” Councilor Tom Dolan said. “I can think of at least two consequences, but there are probably more; one, we’re going to end up with more injured firefighters and a sub-optimal level of staffing, and we already have injuries trying to back-fill with overtime. It will also result in a level of service to the community that’s unacceptable. We need to provide a consistent level of service, and dropping from three to two operating fire stations, I think that’s unacceptable.”

Kathy Wagner of 7 Fiddler’s Ridge said she was at home watching the meeting on television and drove down to speak when she saw the proposed drop to seven firefighters.

“That scared the absolute bejeezus out of me,” she said. “Shutting down Central, are you kidding me? If we’re okay with going down to seven firefighters, are the communities that support us OK? We’re really taxing them now. We know they’ll show up, but I’m really scared the burden we’ll put on Derry, Bedford and Windham will be to the point they will have to choose between us and them.”

Wagner additionally noted it costs Londonderry money to utilize mutual aid, as the Town must return the favor.

“This is a consistent problem that needs to be addressed. I’m expecting all of you to figure it out so it doesn’t keep happening year after year. I think there’s a way we can solve this, but this can’t continue to keep happening,” she said.

“I’m assuming they need more money,” Councilor Tom Freda said of the Fire Department. “Where’s (O’Brien) going to get it?”

“There is no money to take, per say,” Town Manager Kevin Smith said. “In the past, when the Department has needed money, we have had underages, usually in the Police Department and Public Works.”

Smith noted O’Brien told him before the April 6 Council meeting he’s tired of having other departments subsidize the Fire Department, and that he has implemented a number of changes to try to make that possible.

“The Chief came to me with this plan, and it’s not optimal or ideal; but all departments are making sacrifices trying to stay on budget or to come in under budget,” Smith said, noting shutting down a station is not an option and that O’Brien is doing everything he can to hold the line on other costs to make up for the overages.

Councilor Joe Green said he doesn’t believe they should disregard O’Brien’s suggestions.

“To say we don’t want to even look at any of these would not be doing our due diligence. I applaud you for your recommendation for browning-out command staff,” he said. “There are things on here I believe we can look at and maybe not affect the personnel as much.”

Dolan said he finds the idea of reducing fire staff on-duty diametrically opposed to what the voters asked for on March 10.

“Input from voters across the community at the election is their will is to add additional firefighters on duty; yet tonight, we’re talking about reducing a number of firefighters on duty,” he said. “I have a fundamental dilemma with that.”

Dolan said they want the budget to live within the Town’s means, but he has a dilemma when the voters asked for additional firefighters and approved spending the money to fund that.

“What I would like to suggest is we direct the town manager to give an answer by Wednesday morning (April 5, after the Londonderry Times goes to press) what options there are. Do we have to lay off someplace else? Give us all the options so we can work collectively with the town manager,” said Councilor John Farrell, who also advised O’Brien to have a serious conversation with his staff. “These are extreme circumstances that require extreme out-of-the-box thinking.”

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