(Editor's note: At 1,570 words, the following letter from Christopher Shipp, president of the Laconia Professional Firefighters union, far exceeds The Daily Sun's limit for such submissions. Because Mr. Shipp's letter is especially critical of The Daily Sun and its president, we believe it necessary, however, to waive our word limit, in this case, and print his letter in its entirety.)
To The Daily Sun,
I am writing this letter on behalf of the men and women of the Laconia Professional Firefighters.
It was with great disappointment that I read the article by Rick Green in Saturday's issue of The Laconia Daily Sun. The title of the article was "Laconia Firefighters Rack Up More Than $600,000 in Overtime." Mr. Green was welcomed into our central fire station, where we discussed numerous issues that face our department. These issues included low staffing levels, dramatically increasing call volume, training, and running a person down. Instead of writing about any of these issues, which substantially impact the department, he instead chose to write about overtime costs. Unfortunately he did so in the most one-sided, uninformed manner possible, which portrayed our firefighters in an unfairly negative manner. Given that Laconia Mayor Ed Engler is president of The Laconia Daily Sun, one has to wonder what the true intent of the article was, and why overtime was chosen as the subject matter when there are myriads of other issues that are certainly more newsworthy. Nevertheless, the article was written and there are several issues that I would like to address.
The Laconia Fire Department is staffed by 36 full-time "line" personnel, working in four shifts of nine. There is an officer, and two firefighters in the Weirs Station. There is an officer and five firefighters at Central Station. Some of our firefighters are paramedics, which is the highest pre-hospital level of medical certification one can acquire.
In 2016 we responded to over 4,600 emergencies, which makes us one of the busiest fire departments in the state. Our current staffing level of nine is well below national recommendations and the levels of many other departments our size. We do what we can with the staffing level we have and quite frankly we do a phenomenal job at it. Our members accrue leave time the same way most other workers do. When we take earned time off, another firefighter or officer is brought in to fill the vacancy. The reality is that the fire service is not a profession where a vacancy can be left unfilled. Our workload doesn't stop just because we are not there.
For many years, all vacancies created by leave time were filled "man for man." That is not the case today. In order to save money, we routinely "run a person down" when someone is out during a night shift. This unsafe practice hampers our ability to plan for emergencies and changes our tactics when emergencies arise. Running down also makes it much more difficult to handle simultaneous calls, which occur frequently in our busy system. When we run down, staffing at the Weirs station is decreased to two personnel. In the event of a serious medical or fire call in The Weirs, there is a 10-minute wait for additional help coming from central station.
"Coincidentally," we recently started posting on our Facebook page whenever we run a person down, and almost immediately the overtime article appeared in the mayor's paper. The reality is that our staffing levels are already low, so running a person down to save money is not a practice we are comfortable with and the residents of Laconia should not be comfortable with the practice either, and they should know about it when it happens.
Another reality is that when people earn time off, they are allowed to use it. Unfortunately the article implies that Laconia's firefighters are taking an exorbitant amount of time off or abusing leave time, which simply is not true. The fact of the matter is that there are costs associated with providing a fire department, and overtime is one of those costs. We simply cannot operate with fewer firefighters than we currently have. Most people understand fire department overtime is a necessity, but that fact appears to be lost on Mr. Green and Mayor Engler.
In his article, Mr. Green listed the 10 highest overtime earners in the department, but he left out some key points. The "list of ten" in the article can be broken down into two distinct groups. The two major groups included in the list are officers and paramedics. There are five officers on the list. The group of officers is made up of the highest paid and usually more senior members of the department. When officers utilize leave time, their positions are always filled. Someone has to be in charge.
Obviously, senior, higher-ranking officers have a higher overtime rate, but that does not mean they are working an inordinate amount of overtime. Our officers are on the lowest end of the compensation spectrum in relation to comparable departments. The other group in the list of 10 is paramedics. There are four paramedics on the list in the article. As I mentioned previously, paramedics have the highest pre-hospital EMS certification possible. Many of our paramedics have college degrees in emergency medicine. These members literally save lives every day. We always try to make sure that there are paramedics assigned to the ambulances, which is an invaluable asset to the city.
The Laconia Fire Department's paramedics are second to none in ability, but what the article fails to mention is that they are close to the bottom in regards to compensation when compared to other agencies. As a group, our paramedics have not received a pay raise since the inception of our paramedic program more than 15 years ago. Currently, a full 25 percent of our firefighter/paramedics are actively interviewing with other fire departments, where upon being hired they will receive an immediate pay raise regardless of where they currently are on our wage scale. Our paramedics are so poorly compensated that we have a hard time finding and retaining quality applicants. After officers, and paramedics, there is one single firefighter/EMT on the list.
The firefighter on Mr. Green's list routinely comes in for "recalls." A recall is a call for additional off-duty help, which we utilize when our resources are stretched to a dangerously low level. Unfortunately, due to our low staffing level, recalls are implemented all too regularly.
One important point that seems to be missing from Mr. Green's article is that overtime pay is something that is earned, it is not merely given to us. Also missing from the article is the fact that our overtime is mandatory. When a vacancy occurs, the person who is next on the overtime list cannot refuse the overtime. That person has two choices, work it, or give it away. Most of the people on the list in the article have received overtime from other members who were unable to work it.
Also, many times overtime is not caused by members using their leave time at all, it is caused by outside factors. The city hosts numerous valuable events like Motorcycle Week and Pumpkin Fest, which necessitates the need to call in extra personnel. There are also many smaller events and details that lead to an increase in overtime costs. Our members work long and hard to make a decent living, spending numerous hours away from their families and responsibilities outside the department. This fact appears to be lost on our mayor, who would have taxpayers believe that we are taking advantage of them. The most discouraging part of the article was a quote from Mayor Engler, who I have to assume spoke on behalf of the entire City Council when he stated, "There's certainly significant suspicion on the part of the City Council that the system is being gamed. There are ways of working within the system, including the collective bargaining agreement of ensuring there is a lot of overtime that is available as a matter of routine, not out of the ordinary, or extraordinary, but routine."
I would like to know exactly what type of "gaming" the mayor is referring to. The truth is that his statement is malicious and woefully untrue. It is appalling that our mayor, as spokesperson for the city would make such a misleading and accusatory remark. His statement is one of the most unprofessional comments I have ever heard from a municipal leader and it warrants an immediate apology. Our mayor frequently tells us how much he appreciates the work we do, but it would appear that his words are nothing more than political rhetoric, because it is obvious from his statement that he views us as more of a financial liability than a public safety asset.
In closing, I would like to ensure the taxpayers of Laconia that despite what our mayor would have you believe, our firefighters are honest, competent, and extremely hardworking men and women who have nothing but the best interests of the entire community in their hearts. We are certainly not "gaming" anyone, we are simply doing the best job we can with the limited resources we have been given. Considering the risks we consistently take, the hazards we are exposed to on a daily basis, and the lives we frequently save, expecting fair compensation is not an unreasonable request.
Christopher P. Shipp, President
Laconia Professional Firefighters
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