LACONIA — Although the Fire Department increases its staff by four firefighters this year, Chief Ken Erickson said this week that he has chosen to "run short," or not necessarily fill every vacancy on daytime shifts, during September, October, November April and May, which experience indicates are the slowest months of the year, in an effort to manage the cost of overtime.
Earlier this year the department received a Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant of $642,028 from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to fund four additional firefighters for two years. The grant is intended to shorten call response times and expand fire suppression capability while reducing the risk of injury to firefighters by increasing the personnel on each shift from eight to nine.
Erickson said that the decision to "run short" was "my prerogative," and stressed that the department would operate at full strength, with nine firefighters per shift, at night and on weekends as well as around the clock during the busiest months of the year. He said that since introducing the practice, only four shifts have run short. However, he noted that contrary to expectations, November was a very busy month with 354 calls for service, including a rash of suspicious fires, compared to 262 calls in the same month a year ago, which led to so called "recalls" of personnel.
"I don't like running down," Erickson said. "If I tell you I need nine; I need nine all the time." With a full shift, he explained, three trucks can easily be on the street at the same time.
The chief said that since the additional firefighters enabled him to increase each shift from eight to nine, response times have improved 20 percent, recalls have decreased significantly and the number of injuries have been reduced. "We're doing better work," he said.
Nevertheless, Captain Chris Shipp, who in July became president of the Laconia Professional Firefighters, expressed concern about running short while insisting that "as far as staffing goes, the chief and I are on the same page."
"It's a big deal for us," Shipp said. "When somebody is out they need to be replaced. It's a safety issue — the safety of the public and the safety of the firefighters." In particular, Shipp said that when a shift is trimmed from nine to eight, its ability to handle multiple calls for service is diminished. With five firefighters at Central Station and three at the Weirs Beach Station, he said that a severe medical call requiring four firefighters would leave only one to respond to the next call.
Shipp emphasized that the purpose of the SAFER grant is to ensure adequate staffing, not to reduce overtime. "In my opinion, using the grant to cut overtime would be a misuse of the funds."
City Manager Scott Myers agreed that the purpose of the grant was not to reduce overtime, but said that Erickson's decision to run short reflected his best judgement of how to manage the resources and budget of his department. He recalled that a year ago, when there were eight firefighters on each shift, running short led to "brown outs" — with equipment idle for want of personnel to operate it.
Last year, Municipal Resources, Inc. of Meredith undertook a comprehensive review of the department's operations, facilities and apparatus — with special emphasis on its scheduling practices, overtime staffing and shift coverage — and recommended the city hire eight additional firefighters during the next three years. The call volume and workload, MRI found, "is steadily increasing," indicating that "the level of staffing is not adequate."
Overtime pay is incurred whenever someone misses a shift and special events and significant emergencies require addition personnel be brought in while they are officially off duty. MRI calculated the annual cost of overtime was approximately $460,000, of which $200,000 is defrayed with revenue provided by LRGHealthcare. In 2012, overtime was required to cover 561 of 730 shifts, or 77 percent of the time.
MRI recommended hiring four firefighters in fiscal year 2014 to fill float positions on each platoon to reduce overtime and suggested three options for deploying the additional personnel, which would spare between 47 percent and 92 percent of the increased cost by trimming overtime.