EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

March 6, 2014

Methuen fire chief calls staffing 'threadbare'

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

By Douglas Moser
dmoser@eagletribune.com

---- — 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.

In July and August, the department spent about $30,000 per week, and as much as $46,000 one week, for overtime to cover vacation and injury or disability vacancies. Buote said at one time, 13 employees were out on injury or disability, including some with on-duty injuries. Six other firefighters were away at the state Fire Academy.

Staff also typically take vacation during the summer, leading to the highest overtime expenditures. Buote said by contract he cannot control when firefighters take vacation.

Calling the staffing level “threadbare,” Buote said the only two options he has when people call out are to hire someone on overtime to fill that spot or take a piece of equipment out of service.

“When we have 22 personnel per shift, that’s the absolute minimum number of personnel we need to keep all the apparatus in service,” he said.

Zanni said adding the four positions lost since 2008, bringing each shift back to 23, would ensure the department could keep the fire engine and rescue vehicle in service, but would still consume the $1.1 million overtime budget. He estimated the cost of four new firefighters at about $230,000, including benefits.

“They’re short and that’s where they’re escalating,” Zanni said. “If we can put on four more firefighters, that would offset that (spending) and we wouldn’t have the overtime situation we have.”

New hires are pulled from the city’s reserve firefighter roster, which is comprised of people approved from a Civil Service list, and must complete training at the state Fire Academy.

Two or three firefighters are out long term, Buote said, so even with four more firefighters, the department would be down two people, meaning some overtime would be needed to fill those two spots.

Buote estimated that a staffing level of 22 per shift would require $1.7 million in overtime. A level of 21 per shift would require $1.57 million and would take Engine 6 out of service. A level of 19 per shift would require $1.34 million and take Engine 6 Rescue 1 out of service. A level of 18 per shift would take $1.23 million and close north station on Howe Street, with Engine 6 and Ladder 1 out of service. The rescue vehicle would be back in service.

Ambulance 3, which has been inactive since 2008, would remain unstaffed in those scenarios.

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