By RICK GREEN, LACONIA DAILY SUN
LACONIA — The fire department could potentially shave about $100,000 off its yearly overtime expense if it could hire four new firefighters to supplement its current staff, Fire Chief Ken Erickson said Wednesday.
But the savings on overtime wouldn't be nearly enough to pay salary and benefit packages for four new people, the chief said.
Still, he is asking for the additional firefighters in his budget request, saying he feels it is the right thing to do from a public safety perspective.
“I'm always looking at increasing the level of service we provide,” he said. “The City Council wants to save money. I'm looking at this saying, 'We need to increase the level of service and we need to increase the umbrella of safety.”'
Budget requests from all departments will be considered by the City Council as it goes through its yearly budget process this spring and summer. A proposed budget prepared by City Manager Scott Myers does not call for additional staffing. The city is operating under a tax cap that this year allows for only a minimal increase in spending.
Overtime is a perennial issue in budget discussions.
A city report on wages showed the 40-person fire department had about $600,000 in overtime last year, but Erickson said this statistic is deceptive and that a news report on it in Saturday's Laconia Daily Sun has been demoralizing for a busy, efficient and fast-responding department with a low rate of absenteeism.
The city is only responsible for about half that amount, since Lakes Region General Hospital picks up much of the rest of the expense through an ambulance contract. Other groups also pay overtime for special events. Holiday pay, which is necessary in all full-time fire services, is also included in the overtime category.
“Most places of employment close for the holiday and give you the day off with pay,” Erickson said. “Firefighters can't close, so what they do is they get an extra day's pay. There's 11 holidays a year, so basically they get 11 extra days of pay.
“It's not extra money. They had to work Christmas, or they had to work Thanksgiving, or they had to work the Fourth of July.”
The department has just enough personnel to provide around-the-clock coverage at the central station and the firehouse at The Weirs. That means that when someone is on vacation, injured, at a class, or sick, a replacement is typically called in on overtime.
But it's not like anyone is conspiring to game the system with fake illness, Erickson said.
“Last year, the average firefighter used eight vacation days, three sick days, 0.3 line-of-duty injury days and five personal days for an average of 16 days per firefighter,” he said.
Erickson averaged fire statistics from Portsmouth, Dover, Salem and Derry and compared those averages to what the Laconia Fire Department has experienced.
Those cities have an average of 66 firefighters with 15 on duty, 14 emergencies per day, 176 calls per 1,000 population, 1.36 building fires per 1,000 population and a fire department cost per home of $580.
Laconia has 40 firefighters with nine on duty, 13 emergencies per day, 288 calls per 1,000 population, 3.9 building fires per 1,000 population and a cost per home of $343.
Laconia Fire Department Capt. Christopher Shipp, who is also the president of the firefighters union local, said in a letter to the newspaper that the department's current duty staffing of nine firefighters spread between two stations is lower than national recommendations, particularly given the growing number of emergency calls in the city.
“In 2016, we responded to over 4,600 emergencies, which makes us one of the busiest fire departments in the state,” he said. “We do what we can with the staffing level we have and quite frankly we do a phenomenal job at it.”
He also said overtime is mandatory.
“When a vacancy occurs, the person who is next on the overtime list cannot refuse the overtime,” Shipp said. “That person has two choices, work it, or give it away."
Higher-than-average potential for fires has always been present in Laconia, the chief said. He keeps a chart of all significant fires that have occurred in the city during his tenure.
Most are located in areas that firefighters can reach within about four minutes of getting an emergency call.
That's important because much of the city's housing stock is older and more prone to fire, Erickson said. Also, an aging population is leading to an increased number of medical and service calls. The seasonal use of some residences means population figures may be underreported.
Erickson said fires have long been a problem in the Laconia area, owing in part to the natural topography and prevailing winds.
“When you look at the city, because it's in a valley, you have homes that are stacked above each other,” he said. “That's just conducive to the rapid spread of fires.
“One of the worst fires in the state of New Hampshire burned Lakeport to the ground in 1904. Over a hundred homes and buildings were destroyed.”