Thursday, October 8, 2009

Firefighter rescue


It’s an older department and to get the young recruits would be very helpful. That will be great to get them back. They are needed with the vacancies.
-- Timothy J. Gray, DEPUTY FIRE CHIEF

WORCESTER — Federal stimulus money will bring back all of the Fire Department recruits who were laid off earlier this year because of fiscal constraints.

Worcester was one of 13 communities to receive a portion of $8.1 million in federal stimulus funds through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, Gov. Deval L. Patrick announced yesterday. Worcester will receive $940,900, enough to bring back 16 recruits. The 17th recruit received a job within the department because he had veteran status.

News of the federal cash came to laid-off recruit Daniel T. Gemme in a text message as he worked his construction job. He was excited, as was his wife, Erica, who immediately said, “That is the best news.”

Mr. Gemme, 24, took a pay cut when he went into the Fire Academy and money got short. He took a construction job to pay the bills after he was laid off.

Now Mr. Gemme and his wife can look to buy a home, as they continue raising their 1-year-old son.

“It is a great job with great benefits and once I got into the training I got excited about the job,” Mr. Gemme said. “She (his wife) has been waiting for this. We wanted to buy a house. She is excited about that.”

Stopping at his mother’s house after work, Mr. Gemme found his wife was already on the phone passing along the news to her mother-in-law.

The stimulus money will pay to bring the 16 recruits into the department from Nov. 15 to Nov. 15, 2010. The funding was for one year.

“Being able to bring this class on means a world of difference,” said City Manager Michael V. O’Brien, giving praise for those involved in securing the money.

Although the recruits have not been formally notified, the grant stipulated they must begin working Nov. 15. Mr. O’Brien said the department has funding for 384 firefighters and through attrition there are 375 working. With current numbers at 375, the department is down about 100 positions from three years ago.

The addition of the 16 recruits will bump the numbers to 391, which Mr. O’Brien believes will decrease again to 384 as retirements continue within the department.

If fiscal constraints continue and more local aid cuts occur next fiscal year, the city’s ability to fund 384 positions could change. That could result in layoffs if the number of funded positions declines and there were not enough retirements to get to that potentially lower number.

Mr. Gemme said he isn’t concerned about layoffs after the federal money runs out. He believes there are several retirements coming; further cutting into the department’s staffing level.

“At this point I don’t think the department can go much lower,” he said. “We pretty much understood a bunch of guys were coming to their retirement and after we would be able to come back.”

The department does have an older staff, with an average age of 47. Several firefighters were brought on in the 1970s.

“It’s an older department and to get the young recruits would be very helpful,” Deputy Fire Chief Timothy J. Gray said. “That will be great to get them back. They are needed with the vacancies.”

Mayor Konstantina B. Lukes said the city requested about $1.5 million. She believes anticipated attrition in the Fire Department should allow for the recruits to keep their jobs.

The Police Department had to cut its recruit class as well, and grant money did not come through to fund 24 other positions. The mayor said the city is seeking money to fill some of those jobs.

Cuts in the Fire Department resulted in closing stations and increased response times.

Yesterday’s announcement was for the first round of grant awards from the $20 million in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act discretionary funds set aside by the Patrick-Murray administration to help fire departments dealing with staffing cuts.

“We know that our cities and towns have been hit hard by these difficult economic times,” Lt. Gov. Timothy P. Murray said in a news release. “But with these recovery funds, we are able to provide much needed financial assistance to fire departments in municipalities across the state, which will result in bringing back lost jobs, retaining public safety services and helping to stimulate the local economy.”
Worcester Fire Department recruit Daniel T. Gemme, shown with a wedding photo with his wife, Erica, is ready to go to work. (T&G Staff/STEVE LANAVA)