New York Fire Chief Looks To Cut Overtime By 90 Percent

Updated: 05-12-2006 10:26:39 AM

Buffalo News (New York)

Niagara Falls, New York-- The city's new fire chief hopes to eliminate 90 percent of the overtime used by his department by September.

That will take some drastic changes for a fire department that overspent its overtime budget by $500,000 last year. Fire Chief William D. MacKay, who started work nine weeks ago, told the City Council on Monday the problem has plagued the department for more than a decade, and he plans to begin attacking it in the following ways:

* Bill the insurance companies of homeowners who need fire services, a new practice that will require additional training for firefighters on what information needs to be collected on scene.

* Bill the state for calls to state property, such as an interstate highway. MacKay said this is allowed but hasn't been done because it takes a lot of additional paperwork.

* Hire one new central alarm operator and 14 new firefighters. The new employees will help fill 20 current vacancies, many due to those who have been injured and can't work but have not been granted retirement disability by the state.

"I am sure that the city does not like to hear the fact that since 2001 we have paid a fire captain over $300,000 in wages, covered his position on overtime at a cost in excess of $450,000 . . . and still have no resolution as to disability retirement or return to work," the chief said.

MacKay has also changed the way the department addresses injured and retiring workers. "In the past, the practice has been that a position remained vacant until the leave payout was offset by the lapse in salary," said MacKay, who is working with the city's Human Resources Department to fill those positions as soon as possible.

The department has 81 budgeted firefighters, plus 44 captains and chiefs. Twenty of the positions are empty because of recent retirements and those out on disability. The department has already spent more than half its budgeted overtime of $274,000 for the year.

MacKay told the Council a bigger issue is a union settlement requiring an increase in firefighters from 24 to 27 per shift in 2007. The city would have to hire 12 new firefighters and spend $1 million to meet that requiremment. For Council members, that's a scary prospect, and MacKay recommended the city either find the money or negotiate with the unions to decrease that requirement.

Councilmen expressed frustration that they cannot attend negotiation sessions with the fire unions to talk about the subject, but Mayor Vince Anello said he is not part of the bargaining team either and encouraged the lawmakers to make recommendations.

As for staffing levels, MacKay said he is happy with the service the department is providing with 24 firefighters per shift.

MacKay said he plans to meet Thursday with the Seneca Gaming Corp. officials. He said he got a call requesting such a meeting after he made public comments last week at a Buffalo Common Council Waterfront Development Committee meeting.

Buffalo lawmakers asked MacKay and other Falls police and fire officials about public safety in a city with an Indian casino. MacKay said he told the lawmakers he has no doubt the Seneca Niagara Casino's buildings meet fire codes, but he would like to inspect the grounds and get to know the interior, although he has no jurisdiction to do so.

"I don't know if they're looking for clarification," MacKay said. "It will be the first meet and greet that we will have.