Chief reneges on deal with selectmen & firefighters prevail in Gilmanton

GILMANTON — Voters at Saturday's deliberative session of annual Town Meeting added the money to the town budget that would keep the fire chief's schedule as it is — seemingly negating the selectman's desire to cut costs by having him fill two, 12-hour shifts a week as a first responding firefighter.

The vote, which was overwhelmingly supported by the estimated 100 people who attended, added $10,400 back into the Fire Department's budget.

As it stands now, two FF/EMTs staff the station for 12-hours a day, seven days a week. Hempel works 40 hours a week and does not have to be one of the first two people to respond to a call. Twenty-four of the 48 hours required for weekend coverage are filled by part-time FF/EMT for a total of 208 hours per week.

Chief Joe Hempel had objected to taking two shifts weekly but in an executive action in early January, selectmen voted unanimously to make him do it. The executive action is still in place and is scheduled to take effect on March 1.

In addition, voters amended a petitioned warrant article (Article 30) that, if it passes at the ballot session on March 11, would require that of the 208 hours of coverage required to have two firefighter/EMTs available for 12 hours a day, seven days a week, 184 of them be filled by full-time firefighters — 48 hours weekly for each of three firefighters/EMT plus 40 hours for the chief.

While simple on its face, the circumstances surrounding Article 30 has at least two selectmen crying foul — saying the board and the chief struck an agreement about hours and staffing on January 29 in a non-public meeting held in the town offices.

Part of that agreement, according to the draft minutes, was that Hempel would agree to fill one shift as a first-responding firefighter — not two — in exchange for using part-time firefighter/EMTs to fill a vacancy created when one of Gilmanton's firefighters took a full-time job with a neighboring fire department about two months ago.

This would mean that the department would go from four to three full-time employees — including the chief. The measure, said Selectman Brett Currier, would have saved the town about $33,000 and kept the staffing and service levels the same. The savings would have come health insurance and other benefits afforded to full-time employees.

Currier said yesterday that part of the agreement was that Hempel would go to the floor at deliberative session and encourage voters to vote against Article 30, which cannot be removed from the warrant by state law because it was petitioned on to the ballot.

"We haggled it out," said Currier, who yesterday described Hempel's change of heart as a "slap in the face."

"He's trying to make sure we can't hire part-time people to fill the full-time position," Currier said.

Currier said that every department in Gilmanton has faced some kind of reduction in the past few years and the voters want the selectmen to save the town money. He said the call volume for the Gilmanton Fire Department has remained about the same for the past 10 years and that Hempel told them that he has seven or eight qualified FF/EMTs who would be willing and able to fill the hours created by the recent vacancy.

Currier also said there is nothing personal between him and Hempel and that the selectmen are not trying to "micro-manage" the Fire Department or any other department for that matter.

"I was elected to watch the dollars," said Currier.

He added that he was personally disappointed that Hempel went back on their arrangement. "We shook hands," he said. "A deal's a deal."

Hempel admitted yesterday that he reneged on his deal with the selectmen. He said when he was called to the office for the January 29 meeting he had no warning and felt he was cornered and somewhat blind-sided.

He said he probably shouldn't have made the deal but the more he thought about it he felt it wasn't in the bast interests of the Fire Department and of public safety.

"I thought about it and I realized it the position should be a full-time position," he said. He also said he called Town Administrator Arthur Capello on January 30 and told him he was backing out.

Hempel's reasons for wanting the position to be full-time is that while at this moment in time he has enough trained part-time FF/EMTs to fill the 48 hours created by the vacancy plus the hours he already fills with part-timers, that may not be true in the future.

He said he foresees potential problems with part-time staffing in the summer and that 48 hours a week in addition to the 24 he already has to cover with qualified part-time people is too much for a small department.

Hempel said he realizes the selectmen are the governing body and are his bosses. He knows selectmen have the final say on who, if anybody, gets hired as his third firefighter.

What he is hoping is that when voters go to the polls, they support operating the department as it has been operated since he became chief and the selectmen don't make the proposed changes to the way it's staffed.