Overtime Pay Swells Budget at Fire Dept.

Overtime for firefighters is soaring as the Fire Department struggles to staff firehouses, which have seen a surge in retirements since Sept. 11, 2001.

By last month, only five months into the fiscal year, the department had already spent $61.3 million of its original $73.7 million overtime budget, according to city officials.

As a result, the City Council in November approved spending an additional $40 million. But department officials say they will likely need $50 million more to pay firefighters overtime through the end of the fiscal year, on June 30.

"Overtime is needed as long as there is minimum manning," said Francis X. Gribbon, a department spokesman. The city has 346 engine and ladder companies, and it requires that a minimum number of firefighters staff those companies at all times. When the pool of available firefighters shrinks, other firefighters must work overtime, at a pay rate of time and a half.

Last week, the department reported 671 vacancies in its allotted 8,800-member uniformed force. Despite the large number of firefighters retiring, departures until recently had been offset by new hires. In October, however, the city's hiring freeze canceled the department's fall academy. That forestalled any replenishment of the ranks, forcing more firefighters to work overtime to cover the vacancies.

The rise in overtime comes at a critical time for the financially troubled city as it grapples with a projected $45 million gap in the fire department's budget for next year.

Since 92 percent of the department's $1 billion budget is personnel related, fire officials say they do not see any way to reduce spending without enacting the cuts now on the table: the disbanding of eight engine companies and the reduction of engine staffing to four firefighters from five.

"We have cut fire marshals, E.M.S. tours, the cadet program and civilians," Mr. Gribbon said. "It is difficult to make substantial cuts going forward without looking at the emergency response side of the operation."

City officials said that cutting the eight companies would eliminate the need for 200 firefighters and save $11 million. Reducing engine staffing to four firefighters from five would eliminate an additional 225 uniformed positions and save $12 million.

Union officials are critical of the proposals to disband eight companies and reduce staffing. They charge that the city is using the high vacancy rate as a tactic to close firehouses.

"They want to shrink the Fire Department," said Capt. Peter Gorman, president of the Uniformed Fire Officers Association. "But the Office of Management and Budget already shrank the department. They did it by being 671 firefighters short."

With its moves in recent months, the city says it is building a smaller and younger Fire Department that will cost less at a time when the number of fires is declining. But union leaders have said that the reductions and the retirements will affect public safety.

Community groups have rallied around their neighborhood firehouses. And as part of the debate, the city established a blue-panel ribbon to evaluate the fire budget, a move that Deputy Mayor Marc V. Shaw last week called a "political punt."

Commissioner Nicholas J. Scoppetta has said that cuts, while not welcome, can be made without endangering public safety. Mr. Gribbon said that the department has proposed disbanding those companies whose closing would have the least impact on response times.

Stephen Cassidy, president of the Uniformed Firefighters Association, said that it was foolish to think the city could disband fire companies without endangering public safety. "Why don't they just close more companies then?" Mr. Cassidy said. "Response times are going to go up. It's just physically impossible for them not to."

Union leaders do not want any cuts to come from the department budget, contending that the department suffered large enough losses of life and equipment on Sept. 11, 2001. But should some cuts be necessary, they say, they should come from the executive budget.

As he battles with the overtime issue, Commissioner Scoppetta says that he expects the department to hold its next academy in January. That would entail hiring 300 new firefighters and substantially lower the vacancy rate. While hiring firefighters is an expense, officials say it ultimately is more cost effective than paying overtime.

The issue of closing firehouses "is one that the mayor is right to be looking at," said Diana Fortuna, president of the Citizens Budget Commission. "But in addition, they ought to be looking at ways to bring down the overtime."