Council thinking twice about firefighter grant vote

LACONIA — After a consultant recommended the city add eight firefighters during the next three years, City Councilor Henry Lipman (Ward 3) has asked his fellow councilors to reconsider their earlier decision to reject a federal grant that would fund the compensation and benefits of four firefighters for two years when the council meets on Monday.
In January, against the recommendation of Fire Chief Ken Erickson, the council voted to refuse a Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant of $642,028 awarded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) by a vote of four-to-two, with councilors Matt Lahey (Ward 2) and Ava Doyle (Ward 1) dissenting.
Both Erickson and City Manager Scott Myers stressed that apart from the cost of outfitting the firefighters with turnout gear and equipping them with handheld radios, estimated at about $15,000, the grant would fund their salaries, overtime and benefits for two years, with no requirement to retain them when the funding was exhausted. Myers explained that the purpose of the grant is to shorten response times and expand suppression capability while reducing the risk of injury to firefighters.
However, the majority of councilors expressed concern that once the grant expired, there was no assurance the city would have the means to retain the additional personnel. Deputy Chief Deb Pendergast, who prepared the grant application, said it was submitted with the expectation that a plan to maintain the increased staffing would be developed. Myers suggested that a reserve account could be established and the benefits package adjusted, noting that managing resources to keep the positions would be a priority.
Meanwhile, last month Municipal Resources Inc. of Meredith, which the city council commissioned to review coverage, overtime and scheduling at the Fire Department, issued its report, featuring the recommendation to hire four firefighters in 2014 and two in each of the next two years. MRI suggested the council reapply for the SAFER grant.
MRI offered three options for deploying the additional personnel, which which would, the consultants predicted 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 the issue of overtime, MRI concluded that given the risks and experience of fire in the city the department should be expanded to support two fire companies of three apiece and two medical units of apiece, representing a shift of 10. "This pattern of incremental resource increases should continue through the remainder of the decade," the report continues.
On hearing the presentation by MRI, Councilor Bob Hamel (Ward 5 ) said that that had he known what the report contained "I would probably have voted to accept the grant." Clearly he is not alone.