Councilors debate fire staffing

12 years ago

Councilors debate fire staffing

By Kathy McCarty

Staff Writer

    PRESQUE ISLE — Staffing at the Presque Isle Fire Department was the issue of much debate on Monday, as Craig Green, the newest city councilor, questioned the pros and cons of eliminating a full-time position and filling it with students or per diem staff.

    Last year’s Council voted in favor of a resolution to reduce staffing from four-person shifts to three per shift. Currently the PIFD has a full daytime staff of four firefighters and Chief Darrell White. An opening that occurred earlier this year has remained vacant, pending councilors’ decision on how the position will be filled.

    “A lot of communities don’t give what the department heads present. It was requested to continue staffing four per shift. The impact of putting money back including benefits, to make that work, would be another $42,316,” said City Manager Jim Bennett.

    Green said he knew the budget includes the student program to cover two 14-hour shifts but that the student part “is not a realistic fourth person.”

    “They’ll be new, need to be trained. How quickly can you train to a level 1 or 2 as a viable fourth person? Realistically speaking, to have four-person teams that can go out on a fire — the chief can be the fourth but he’s not always available. At night we’ll have two students filling in. I have some reservations of students acting as the fourth person,” said Green, noting he knew it worked in other communities to some extent, but as an addendum to the team and not as a fourth person.

    Council Chair Emily Smith said they’d be trained, but Green questioned how adequately trained a student can be in a semester, when having to deal with their college classes too.

    “To bring them from zero to trained firefighter while living there, they shouldn’t be considered as a fourth firefighter. They can be considered additional help,” said Green. But in the meantime, “I think we’ll have to fill with per diem volunteers.”

    Green noted that the PIFD has 33 volunteer positions currently, with 21 of those filled. Of those, only eight can fill in during a vacancy, with only two of those able to leave during regular work hours.

    “I don’t think realistically students can fill these positions,” said Green.

    Under the proposed student program, students would receive room and board at the fire station from Sept. 1 to May 1. From May through September, positions would be filled by per diem, volunteers or overtime. In addition, sleeping quarters would need to be added to the public safety building to provide students their own space to study and sleep.

    “The student thing would be wonderful to have the additional help. But I think we ought to look at a temporary site trailer, not build a $90,000 addition,” said Green.

    Bennett said there were a couple of assumptions to deal with.

    “We can guarantee if we don’t want it to work, it won’t. And students won’t live somewhere if they don’t have a real living space,” said Bennett.

    “If I’m a union rep, my goal is to blow this out of the water. Neither I nor the chief are sure we can get qualified people, but we don’t know if we don’t try,” said the city manager.

    Firefighter pay was discussed, including the average breakdown for expenses like workers’ comp, Medicare and FICA. It was estimated that average pay for a firefighter is around $55,000 a year. Bennett indicated $40,000 was built into the budget to pay someone round the clock from May 1 through Sept. 1.

    “If that were the case, $40,000 is built into the budget, so this didn’t have to happen,” said Green.

    Bennett said $16,000 is included for per diems. Craig indicated if students don’t show up, that’s $56,000.

    “That’s pretty close on numbers,” said Green.

    Bennett said it wasn’t close at all, considering in 2011 about $128,000 was spent on overtime, with 2012 so far running around $108,000 in per diem so far. Craig said it remained a case of “apples to oranges.”

    Smith said the resolution on the table to go to three firefighters resulted because “we feel we can handle (fourth person) with per diem and volunteers, since we have such good response from volunteers.”

    “I think this is a good compromise with student live-ins. It could be good if thought of in a positive light,” she said. “I think you’re missing a lot of numbers in the summer with what you have to cover in time. Most firefighters took vacation in summer,” said Smith.

    Green asked if the city goes to the student program, how would vacancies be covered.

    Bennett said the city is only looking to use students to cover 10 hours at night.

    Green asked for the worst case scenario, should the city fail to get qualified student applicants.

    “We’ll get volunteers who are willing to live there,” said Smith.

    Green said volunteers couldn’t be expected to live there, and even if they did, the city would have to work around their regular work schedule.

    “Ultimately my issue is at the end of the day, we won’t have a qualified fourth person. It’ll be an extra person,” said Green.

    Smith insisted they’d be trained. Green said his point was they won’t be qualified to run into a burning building.

    Councilor Bruce Sargent said, given the economy, “we’ll have to make some changes. Fire and police will take hits like anybody else; that’s the reality to me.”

    “My contention is, eight of 12 firefighters live out of town, with families protected by volunteers. We have more than enough protection in Presque Isle. I’d be fine with a three-man deal,” said Sargent. “We’re trying to work with both sides. If the other side doesn’t want to work, we can work against them at the end of the day.”

    “I won’t pound my head against the wall any more. The reality is students won’t be trained. Trained students will leave us for greener pastures. We’ll spend a lot of money to train and want to keep them,” said Green.

    Smith said it was a matter of risk assessment.

    “I’m leery of the student program but feel three is an appropriate risk. That’s a compromise I’m willing to make to have the fourth person there who won’t cost as much as a full-time,” said Smith.

    Craig reminded councilors of the need to follow the two-in, two-out rule which requires there be four firefighters certified in interior firefighting be present before anyone can enter a burning structure.

    “It’s not required (to respond to a fire). Fort Fairfield is doing fine with an all-volunteer department,” said Smith.

    Green questioned how much of an impact raising the $55,000 for a firefighter would be to the mil rate. Bennett indicated it would be approximately $6.22 annually in taxes on a home with a median value of $80,000.

    “We’re arguing over a full-time firefighter for $6.22?” asked Green. “Let’s not forget we’re a community that swells during the day.”

    “I’m going on record; I’m in favor of the $6.20,” said Green.

    Bennett said from his perspective, he has “no more certainty that we’ll get four qualified, than you are we’ll get none. But we won’t know if we don’t try.”

    Bennett said if city officials aren’t successful in getting qualified student applicants by next March, “we’ll look at the alternatives.”

    “I know we should have two-in, two-out, but at the end of the day, the Council needs to decide what number they can live with. I’m comfortable with the numbers delivered,” said Bennett.