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March 6, 2014

Methuen fire chief calls staffing 'threadbare'

Says some engines may be taken out of service until July to offset OT

METHUEN — The Fire Department likely will have to take at least one, and possibly two, vehicles out of service between now and July due to overtime costs caused by injuries and a short staff, Fire Chief Steven Buote said.

The department is running up against its $1.1 million overtime budget, and with the mayor and City Council not adding funding, Buote said he will have to take a fire engine and maybe the rescue vehicle, both assigned to Central Station, out of service. Both vehicles have been taken out of service previously.

Meanwhile, Mayor Stephen Zanni said he is considering adding funding in next year’s budget proposal for four firefighters, a move he said would reduce some overtime spending.

“We’ve already taken two pieces of apparatus out of service at points during the year, and we’re going to have to take at least one, possibly two, pieces of apparatus out of service again before the end of the year just to meet the budget,” the chief said.

Buote said his overtime spending dropped to between $6,000 and $7,000 per week earlier this year, a level he and city officials estimated could be sustained for the rest of the fiscal year, which ends June 30. But to achieve that level, he sometimes had to take a fire engine and the rescue vehicle out of service.

“Since then, we put those two pieces of apparatus back into service, but we’re once again at an unsustainable level,” Buote said. He estimated his current overtime spending at about $20,000 per week.

The department currently is budgeted for 92 personnel, broken down into 22 people in each of four shifts. The remaining four are the chief, the deputy chief and two captains. The department also has a clerk and an administrative assistant, according to department documents.

Buote said each shift had 23 people before 2008. Since then, four positions have not been funded, requiring one of the three ambulances to be out of service and the rescue vehicle to be staffed with only one firefighter. Methuen relies on mutual aid for about 100 medical transports annually, costing the city about $80,000 a year in foregone revenue, Buote said in a document to the City Council.

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