Gilmanton selectmen adopt policy that asks fire chief to work 2 regular firefighter shifts each week

GILMANTON — Selectmen formally adopted a written policy that sets 168 hours a week as the maximum number that can be used by the Fire Department to have two staff members at a time provide station coverage for 12 hours each day. With a full-time staff of one chief and three firefighter/EMTs, the effect of the policy is to make the chief insert himself into the rotation for two, 12 hour shifts per week.

The vote, which was taken in a public session Monday night, was unanimous.

Selectmen allowed for exceptions of the policy to provide for coverage for sick days, vacations days, staff vacancies, or personnel days. All staffing will be provided by full-time Gilmanton Firefighter/EMTs.

Appraised ahead of time about the impending written policy, Fire Chief Joe Hempel III — who, along with most members of the Gilmanton Fire Association had objected — sent a letter to the board expressing his "displeasure and disagreement" with it.

"Board members have stated that three employees working shifts during the week is 'overstaffing,'" he wrote. "I respectfully disagree and feel that our current staffing pattern addresses the safety needs of our community."

Selectman Don Guarino said Monday that during its annual budget preparation process, the board looked at Sunday staffing at the department and realized that Sunday's were being staffed by part-time employees and that both of them were not always certified Firefighter/EMTs.

All three said their interpretation of a warrant article passed at the 2004 Town Meeting was that the town would be covered by full-time employees. Guarino said he noticed that weekday shifts included three full-time employees, including the chief.

"We weren't digging for it but now we know that this is what the voters wanted in 2004," Guarino said.

The new policy is projected to reduce the Fire Department budget by $20,000.

In essence, selectmen determined that Hempel should be filling the role as the second firefighter/EMT for the 40 hours a week that he works and he should readjust his employee's schedules to have the Sunday shift covered by two of his four full-time employees.

Hempel, who did not appear at Monday's meeting despite being listed on the agenda, asked that selectmen reconsider the policy and allow him to reschedule his personnel as he sees necessary.

In a e-mail sent to The Daily Sun yesterday, he said the logic behind the selectman's assumption that he should be a "first responder" is flawed.

He pointed out that the fire chief serves as a command officer and if he is actively fighting a fire or transporting a patient, he is unable to command the scene.

In addition, he says the role of chief is one of oversight and education and his job is to ensure his employees and the public remains safe.

Hempel also said there a very few call firefighters available during the day and his presence as a "third" person allows for an additional "set of hands" in the event of an emergency and gives him the leeway to return to the station in the event of a transport, which can take two people up to three hours.

With two people only in the station during the day, he said it will increase Gilmanton's dependence on mutual aid while decreasing overall performance in his department.

Hempel said OSHA also requires responding firefighters to go "two-in and two-out" to structure fires, leaving no one to do the initial job of hooking up fire lines and  coordinating communications with other responders.

As to the specifics in Gilmanton's Fire Department, he said the selectman's actions have been demoralizing to the members of his department and hiring, training and equipping new firefighters is expensive.

As to the projected $20,000 savings, Hempel, who is also a Gilmanton resident and taxpayer, said that the $20,000 amounts to about 4 cents per $1,000 of evaluation or about $8 for the $200,000 home owner.