A tempest in Gilmanton as selectmen propose that chief take 2 firefighter shifts per week himself

GILMANTON — Selectmen are looking to reduce the Fire Department's 2014 budget by $29,000 by eliminating Sunday hours available for part-time firefighters.

The way to accomplish this, reflect draft minutes of the December 16 selectman's meeting, is to have Chief Paul Hempel III cover two 12-hour shifts himself as opposed to scheduling two firefighter/EMTs.

"He can pick his shifts, it doesn't matter us. He can run his department and there is plenty of time to do the administrative work..." said Selectman Brett Currier.

As it stands now, there are four full-time employees in the Gilmanton Fire Department — Hempel, who is scheduled to work 40 hours per week and three firefighter/EMTs who each work 48 hours a week. Each of the tree full-time firefighters works four, 12-hour shifts, Monday through Saturday.

In addition, there are two part-time employees who work on Sunday from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Currier said this means 208 personnel hours are being used by the town to cover 168 hours of services and he would like to see that number reduced back to 184 — saving the $29,000 in part-time personnel costs. He said the remaining time plus the time the chief is not on calls is ample to do the administrative work of the department.

The Fire Department's requested budget for 2014 as far a personnel is concerned is the same as 2013. Hempel said yesterday that he has not asked for any additional personnel in the three years that he has been chief and has made every attempt to reduce the personnel costs of the department.

"I am a taxpayer too," he said.

As it stands now, Hempel works 40 hours a week as a fire chief and during his 40 hours a week responds to calls as a supervisor or stays behind to respond to second calls — depending on the nature of the call. He primarily works Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. but responds to calls at all hours of the day and night as do other call firefighters.

His duties involve managing the student firefighter program, whereby six Lakes Region Community College students live at the station, all administrative tasks and the budget. When there is an incident he is also the command supervisor.

According to the 2004 annual Gilmanton Town report, the third full-time firefighter was added that year to provide day-time coverage for seven days as week.

"This additional staff would allow me to have full-time staff seven days a week up from the current six day a week," wrote then Fire Chief Timothy Robbins.

At some point since 2004 but before 2012, when Hempel became chief, the department added two part-time shifts for Sunday coverage at a cost of about $29,000 annually.

Using this reasoning, Currier said the four full-time firefighters were intended to cover the station seven days a week and since he hasn't seen any significant increase in call volume in the last 10 years, he thinks the four full-timers should still be able to cover the station seven days a week.

Currier also said his research shows that the call volume of the department has stayed around 400 calls annually — much the same as it was in 2004.

At the December 16 meeting, Selectman Don Guarino was in agreement with Currier reduction recommendation but board Chair Ralph Lavin was not.

Lavin said yesterday that because there was no unanimity on the board, selectmen decided to bring the matter to the people in the form of a warrant article at annual town meeting. The proposed article, which has been drafted with the assistance of the town attorney, would require the chief to "regularly fill shifts weekly" along with one other full-time firefighter/EMT.

Fighting against the reduction of the part-time hours, or $29,000, are Hempel and the Gilmanton Firefighters Association — led at the December meeting by call firefighter Vinnie Baiocchetti.

Baiocchetti, who was accompanied by many members of the association, cited N.H. RSA 154:4 that states a fire chief has operational authority over his or her department by law.

He also objected to the words "working chief" proposed in the warrant article, wanting to know exactly what that means. Baiocchetti said Hemple "works" from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. and has the second highest volume of call responses in the department, as well as the other administrative duties he preforms.

Baiocchetti said the words of the chief from 10 years ago should not be held against a chief today because the nature of firefighting and emergency response has changed.

Town Administrator Arthur Capello said in the selectman's opinion, RSA 154:1 gives the board as the governing body the power to exercise operational authority over the department.

But, he said and Currier agreed, that is not what they want.

He said the goal of at least two of the three selectmen is to cut taxes by reducing $29,000 from the Fire Department's operation budget.

Capello also said words "working chief" were probably ill-chosen. "The final warrant article if there is one won't have those words in it," he said.

He said selectmen also don't want residents to get the impression that their desire to reduce the budget has anything to do with how they feel about Hempel or the job is he doing.

"We like the way he runs the department and we like him," Capella said, adding that the board were prefer to sit down with Hempel and work out some kind of solution and not have a warrant article at this year's annual town meeting.