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Gilmanton citizens are the losers when Fire Dept. budget is cut like this

  • Published in Letters

To The Daily Sun,

The Gilmanton Board of Selectmen recently voted unanimously to institute a new policy which limits the way the fire chief can schedule his personnel. The board has disregarded RSA 154:5, which gives the fire chief sole authority to "direct and control all employees of his or her department in their normal course of duty and to be responsible for the efficient and economical use of all department equipment". This mandate has had an immediate negative effect on morale amongst fire department personnel, both full and part-time, top to bottom, as well as reducing the level of service the department has been providing to the town for many years.

Gilmanton currently funds three full-time FF/AEMTS. They work four, 12 hour days for a total of 48 hours per week per employee. The fire chief is a 40 hour per week salaried position with a $2,000 annual stipend for night call response. Two part-time employees are used on Sundays to cover the 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. shift. The fire chief works with both the full-time staff and the call staff. Our current schedule allows the most efficient use of personnel to meet the needs of the community both day and night.

The fire chief's current work week is generally spent serving with two full-time personnel Monday-Fridaym 8-5, Our current staffing pattern allows for staffing the stations seven days per week from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., with the call department offering coverage from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. During a typical week the fire chief carries out his administrative duties and responds to calls, working with the two full-time FF/AEMT's for a total coverage of three personnel on during weekday hours, when there is limited call staff available. This staffing pattern allows for the management of multiple calls, allows a command structure at incidents and allows the fire chief to manage the department in an efficient and professional manner. Weekends are covered by two personnel each day and they are supplemented with call personnel.

The selectman's new policy eliminates the use of our per diem Sunday staff, under the guise of cost savings. This is a service cut to our citizens. The policy change eliminates 24 hours of call coverage per week. The current budget, and budgets of years past funds 208 hours of coverage. The board has determined that they are providing the necessary coverage with 168 hours, and stating further, that with four full-time employees they are providing 184. They are counting my 40 hours in the that 184. The board believes that they are giving us enough hours to provide what they consider the necessary coverage for the town.

The Board of Selectman would like the fire chief to begin covering shifts to make up for the loss of the 24 hours in part-time coverage. The boards feeling is that two personnel working during the weekday shifts are sufficient for coverage, adding a third is overstaffed. The board feels the role of the second firefighter should be assumed by the fire chief. Although on the surface this sounds like a reasonable idea, the logic is flawed for several reasons.

1. The fire chief serves as a command officer. If the chief covers a shift he will be actively fighting fire or performing direct patient care leaving no one to fill a vital command function.

2. The successful and safe outcome of any emergency incident requires command and control. The chief's role is oversight and risk reduction. His job is to ensure that his employees and the public he serves remain safe. He cannot be asked to be both fire chief and firefighter at the same time

3. During week days when the fire chief works there are very few call personnel available for response. The addition of the chief working with the two day staff members allows for an extra set of hands on emergency incidents. It allows for the efficient handling of town incidents.

4. All medical calls require at least two personnel to transport. Ambulance transports take anywhere from 2-3 hours for completion. If the ambulance and staff are out of town, the chief typically remains to answer and manage any additional calls that may occur in the staff's absence.

5. When an outside community asks for mutual aid during the day, the staff is available to answer these calls, while also keeping a pulse on our community. On out of town calls it is not out of the ordinary for the chief to remain in town in order to be available to answer any additional in town event.

6. OSHA requires a two in two out approach prior to engaging in structural firefighting. The regulation now requires that interior structural fire fighting procedures provide for at least two fire fighters inside the structure. Too many firefighters have because of insufficient accountability and poor communications. Two firefighters and the chief on an initial response lay the foundation for the successful outcome of an incident.

The board and I have a philosophical difference on how we should staff and they would not accept a staffing compromise that I had proposed.

The board's policy mandate leaves me with no alternative other than to overhaul our current schedule as it does not allow the use of part-time employees to fill shifts on a regular basis, as has been past practice. I'm allowed to use part-time employees to fill shifts for vacation, holiday and personal days only.

Developing a new schedule with the cut of 24 hours of part-time personnel is a difficult prospect. It is not as simple as plug and play. Each move of an employee on a schedule needs to be accounted for, and hours need to be allocated to offer a reasonable rotation on a seven day pay period.

The policy change impacts the town's current service and a schedule, which we have used for over three years, one that has proven manageable and successful. The current funding for our schedule has been approved through the budget process for years; it is one that our employees are satisfied with and it allows the most efficient use of personnel to meet the needs of the community both day and night.

The move by the board to determine what they feel is the adequate coverage for the town undermines the responsibility of the fire chief and forces the fire chief to make changes in the schedule that he feels are a determent to the service that we provide our citizens.

Our citizens are losing in this. My hope is, if citizens are satisfied with the current level of service they will let their board members know.

Our department continues to provide the very best in care to our community; there has been no instance that I have been made aware of, that our community is unhappy with the current staffing pattern and service we provide. I have provided countless data supporting our current staffing pattern. I see absolutely no rationale or merit in forcing a change on our current schedule. My position as fire chief is administration and oversight, as well as having a command presence at our incidents. The safety of our employees and our citizens is my primary concern.

If citizens have any questions they are welcome to contact me at the Fire House - 364.2500

Here are a couple of facts:

Our staffing costs have been reduced and redistributed through our budget to be mindful of budget increases.

We currently have a great staff that provides an excellent service to our community. Our employees are community minded and care about the service they provide.

Morale from full-time and call personnel has been negatively impacted by the board's actions.

Since I was hired as full-time chief nearly three years ago I have lost five employees to other departments..

My highest tenured employee has been with us for a year and a half. My next, 10 months, and I currently have a vacancy.

Our department provides the town between $45,000 and $65,000 in revenue annually through ambulance billing — $580,000 since 2004.

We have great highly trained employees, that we risk losing due to impending schedule changes.

The cost to replace an employee is immeasurable, especially one that has come to know the town and its residents. Cost to hire, train and equip new employees is significant.

The cut of our 24 hour part time use amounts to a $20,000 budget cut. Or approximately .04 per thousand on the tax rate or a total of $8 on a $200,000 assessed home

The prior board's report from Local Government Center indicates micro management by the board of selectman as the number one reason for chief and employee turnover. Turnover is costly in both budget dollars and level of service. We have been working to reduce the level of turnover. This policy cripples those efforts.

Chief Joe Hempel

Sanbornton Fire Department