Consultant says Laconia Fire is understaffed; reduction in OT will help pay for more help

LACONIA — After undertaking a comprehensive review of the Fire Departments' operations, facilities and apparatus — with special emphasis on its scheduling practices, overtime staffing and shift coverage — Municipal Resources , Inc. of Meredith has recommended the city hire eight additional firefighters during the next three years as well as renovate and expand the Central Fire Station.
Donald Bliss, who served as New Hampshire State Marshall from 1992 to 2003, and Brian Duggan, Fire Chief of Northampton, Massachusetts, who prepared the report told the City Council last night their task was "to determine if there is a most cost-effective approach based on current staffing levels." They noted that the department "provides an exceptional value to the community and does a commendable job working within the constraints of limited resources."
Councilor Bob Hamel (Ward 5) remarked that the report echoed what Fire Chief Ken Erickson has been telling the council for several years and asked "are they operating as best they can with the resources they have?"
"Yes," answered Bliss. "The simple answer is yes."
Recalling that in January the council, with one dissenting vote, rejected a federal grant of some $600,000 to hire four firefighters for two years, with no obligation to continue their employment, Hamel said that had he known what the report contained I would probably have voted to accept the grant."
Bliss reminded him that the federal grants are not awarded to reduce overtime costs, which is a principal theme of MRI's recommendations, but to enhance the level of protection and service.
In 2012, the department responded to 5,393 calls for service — 1,428 fires and 2,220 medical emergencies while transporting 1,745 patients. Although fires represent slightly more than a quarter of all calls for service, MRI found that the number of fires in Laconia exceeds that of larger municipalities like Concord and Keene and matches that of cities three to four times its size. In light of the age and number of multi-family dwellings, together with their proximity to one another, as well as the topography of the city , the report found that Laconia "faces a greater risk from fire than several similar communities that we have evaluated." pose relatively high risk of fire.
The call volume and workload,, MRI found, "is steadily increasing," indicating that "the level of staffing is not adequate." The department consists six officers, six supervisors and 24 firefighters, organized into four platoons, each working 24-hour shifts of eight, six firefighters and two officers. This level of staffing enables the department to provide either two medical units and one fire company or two fire companies and one medical unit. "Neither equation is adequate to meet the needs of the city," MRI concluded, "unless the city chooses to accept a risk profile that accepts response delays ands increasing fire loss."
The annual cost of overtime is approximately $460,000, of which $200,000 is defrayed with revenue provided by LRGHealthcare. Currently there are nine personnel on duty six days a week and eight at night, which enables the department to operate a second ambulance or aerial ladder from Central Station during the peak hours between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. The ninth person is filled with overtime funded by LRGH. In addition, overtime is incurred whenever someone misses a shift and special events and significant emergencies require addition personnel. In 2012, overtime was required to cover 561 of the 730 shifts, or 77 percent.
MRI recommends hiring four firefighters in fiscal year 2014, at a cost of $310,440 including compensation and benefits and equipment who would fill float positions on each platoon to reduce overtime. Three options for deploying the additional personnel are suggested, which would spare between 47 percent and 92 percent of the increased cost by trimming overtime. The report claims the service would be improved by enabling the department to provide two fire companies and two medical units during each shift and eliminating the need for overtime to offset the first absence on each shift.
Apart from creating float positions, MRI suggests seven alternative means of managing overtime costs. These include engaging temporary personnel in the summer months, closing the Weirs Beach Station in the off-season, taking an ambulance out of service during a fire, reducing the staff on each shift, restoring the call company or deploying fire science students from Lakes Region Community College and seeking more funds from LRGHealthcare.
Part from the issue of overtime, MRI concluded that given the risks and experience of the city, along with its projected growth, the department should be expanded to support two fire companies of three apiece and two medical units of apiece, representing a shift of 10. The report recommends as well as adding four firefighters in 2014 "to both bolster the service and absorb overtime" the city hire two firefighters in both 2015 and 2105, providing an assigned shift of 10 and a minimum shift of nine. "This pattern of incremental resource increases should continue through the remainder of the decade," the report continues. "One a 10-person shift minimum is attained, and 11 personnel are assigned to each shift, resources should be held constant.
While MRI reported that although fire officers and firefighters share a common vision of how the department should develop and pride in their service to the community, both "almost universally feel that moral in the organization is low." They point to tight budgets and limited resources, along with a sense that they are not appreciated or respected by some city councilors, reflected in the failure of the Laconia Professional Firefighters and city officials to agree on a new collective bargaining agreement, which has left personnel without pay raises since the prior, contract expired in June, 2010."
MRI recommends that the city and union "redouble" their efforts to negotiate a contract and that both participate in the Labor-Management Initiative co-sponsored by the International Association of Fire Chiefs and International Association of Fire Fighters