By Doug Ireland
---- — When there were staff shortages, including a captain’s illness, at the Salem Fire Department this summer, a lieutenant offered to fill in.
The lieutenant worked about 100 hours that week because of vacations and the absence of Capt. Steve McKenna, who is battling cancer, according to Salem Town Manager Keith Hickey.
“It was a onetime deal,” Hickey said. “It was the exception, not the rule.”
But Selectman Stephen Campbell told fellow board members last week he’s concerned about town employees putting in too many hours, affecting the quality of their work.
Allowing the lieutenant to work that many hours put the town in a difficult position, he said, possibly jeopardizing public safety.
“The more hours you work, the more chance it is likely you could make a mistake,” Campbell said. “It is not good for the employees, it is not really good for the town as an employer.”
Salem has policies for how many hours police officers and firefighters can work, but Campbell said they are too lenient.
Some other Southern New Hampshire departments have formal policies as well, but some do not, and say the number of hours worked has never been issue.
Campbell contends the lieutenant logged 105 hours in that one week and says the policies must be tightened.
Campbell, who as a selectman must sign off on employee payroll, said another public safety employee worked 91 hours a few weeks ago. He would not identify the employee nor the department.
An employee could work as many as 112 hours in a week under town policy, he said. A Salem police officer could work up to 16 hours in a 24-hour period while a firefighter could work at least 48 hours in a 72-hour period.
But Hickey and other selectmen don’t take issue with the policies. The town manager said the situation last summer was the only time an employee worked approximately 100 hours.
“It doesn’t happen,” he said.
There is a small group of six to eight employees who work nearly 60 hours a week, but that’s it, Hickey said.
Amending the policy would affect employee contracts, meaning new hourly limits would have to be negotiated with the unions, Hickey said. Police and firefighters compromising public safety by working excessive hours, including traffic details, has not been an issue, he said.
“Trying to regulate this, I don’t think makes any sense,” Hickey said.
When asked about the issue Wednesday, Campbell said he didn’t know of any particular safety problems that occurred because of employees working too many hours. His goal is to take action before that kind of situation arises.
“There are decisions in public safety that are life or death,” said Campbell, an accountant and son of a former Salem police official. “Can you work as effectively if you get up to 70 to 80 hours? No one does. If I make a mistake as an accountant, I have an eraser.”
Not just a safety issue
Deputy police Chief Shawn Patten, president of the Salem Public Administrators Association, takes issue with Campbell’s claims and said employee hours are carefully managed through the police department’s policy enacted in 1990.
The policy and employee contracts allow for his officers to work overtime and details — something that Campbell and other selectmen have no say over, he said.
Allowing officers to work extra hours is especially important now with the reconstruction of Interstate 93 and other roads requiring extra officers to manage traffic flow during the construction, Patten said. With the onset of the holiday season, additional officers must also be deployed at The Mall at Rockingham Park and other retail venues, he said.
Patten, who outlined his concerns about Campbell’s request in a letter to Hickey and town Human Resources Director Molly McKean, said the selectman is worried about having to pay employees overtime, not public safety.
“We are fortunate that many officers are willing to give up personal time to work these additional shifts and hours,” Patten said in the letter. “Without that or without adding significant personnel, we simply could not function efficiently or effectively.”
Officers are sometimes injured on the job, but not because they worked too many hours, Patten said.
“Research would show at the police department that all of the sustained injuries had nothing to do with the amount of hours the employee worked that day or week,” Patten said.
“We all know we need rest,” Patten said Wednesday. “No one works 100 hours.”
Having adequate staffing without being able to substantially increase personnel because of fiscal constraints has also been an issue in the fire department in recent years.
During town budget discussions with selectmen, fire Chief Kevin Breen has emphasized the need to fully staff shifts with 15 firefighters to provide sufficient coverage without compromising safety.
Three fire department employees have been filling McKenna’s shifts on a rotating basis to make sure they are covered without racking up excessive hours, Hickey said.
Hickey and Breen also question Campbell’s motive.
Both said the selectman recently interrogated a firefighter in a grocery store, asking why he was there on town time. The firefighter explained he was buying food for the firefighters’ meal at the station that day, Hickey said. Campbell said he doesn’t remember such an encounter.
“I don’t know how he can’t recall it,” Breen said. (The firefighter) was in full uniform.”
Other towns also have policies
The need for police and firefighters to receive sufficient rest is a concern in other Southern New Hampshire communities, but hasn’t become a public issue, according to town officials.
They have policies similar to Salem’s restricting the hours that can be worked.
In Sandown, police officers aren’t allowed to work more than 12 hours in a 24-hour shift, police Chief Joseph Gordon said.
“I don’t allow doubles,” Gordon said. “After 10 to 12 hours, I think productivity starts dropping.”
But Sandown officers could technically work details after putting in a 12-hour day.
“If I feel they are sleep deprived, then we will have a conversation,” Gordon said. “They are putting the lives of others in danger.”
Sandown Selectmen’s Chairman Thomas Tombarello, a deputy for the Essex County Sheriff’s Department in Massachusetts, said it’s essential public safety employees be well rested before going on duty. He said his department doesn’t allow someone to work more than 16 consecutive hours.
“You can work two eight-hour shifts, but then you need to have eight hours of rest.”
Some area police and fire departments don’t have specific policies, including Hampstead and Danville.
But Hampstead police Chief Joseph Beaudoin said the general rule in his department and many others is an officer should never work more than 16 consecutive hours. He said his officers generally work 12-hour shifts unless there is a major need for them to stay longer.
“We want officers to work no more than 16 hours at a time,” he said.
Many fire departments, such as Danville’s, rely on volunteers and have few, if any, full-time employees.
The police department has full-time officers, but the number of hours worked has never been a public safety concern, according to Selectmen’s Chairman Shawn O’Neil.
“That’s not an issue we’ve had to address,” he said. “But you don’t want a cop driving around and sleeping.”
In Salem, Campbell said the town’s hourly limits need to be reduced, but he didn’t offer any specific proposals to the rest of the selectmen last week. Just addressing the issue would be a positive first step, he said.
“I just think the policy doesn’t make any sense,” he said.