Mass FD to Hire FFs for Safety's Sake

Shawn Regan
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The Eagle-Tribune, North Andover, Mass.

Posted: Wed, 01/27/2010 - 01:00
Updated: Wed, 01/27/2010 - 08:27

Jan. 26--HAVERHILL -- City Councilor William Macek said he agrees with the mayor that there's money to be saved in some instances by using overtime cash to cover open shifts, instead of hiring permanent employees with expensive benefits.

But Macek believes the Fire Department, now down 10 workers, has hit the "tipping point" where it is no longer financially prudent or safe to delay increasing staffing.

"I believe hiring three to five new firefighters would save money," Macek said, noting the department recently eclipsed the $1 million mark in overtime spending for the first seven months of the fiscal year that ends June 30.

The City Council budgeted $854,000 for the department's overtime account, but the city has been using money to pay for overtime that was set aside to pay the salaries of the 10 department members who have retired in the last several years.

"We have to look at not only the financial costs, but also the cost and risk of having our firefighters working so much overtime," Macek said. "I understand there's always going to be a need for a certain amount of overtime, but I don't like the idea of it being built into the regular work schedule like it is now."

City Councilor David Hall has said fire union officials told him the city would save up to $17,000 in overtime spending for each firefighter hired. Macek said he isn't sure the savings are that much, but said "there is definitely money to be saved" by adding workers.

At tonight's council meeting, Macek and Hall will ask their colleagues to refer Fire Department staffing to the council's Public Safety Committee. That committee, headed by Hall, plans to hold a meeting Feb. 10 to discuss the issue with Mayor James Fiorentini, fire Chief Richard Borden and union officials, Macek said.

"Both myself and the chief plan to attend their (Feb. 10) meeting," Fiorentini said. "In the meantime, I've told all the councilors that I'll look at any ideas they have for saving money." Last week, Fiorentini said the fire chief is in the process of interviewing several applicants, with the intention of hiring between one and four firefighters by the end of the month.

In November, the city received $262,645 in federal stimulus money to hire firefighters.

Haverhill is down to 85 firefighters out of 95 that are funded in this year's city budget. No new firefighters have been hired in more than four years. The vacancies are mainly the result of retirements, including at least three since the fall.

Union officials have also complained that Fiorentini has delayed several promotions and not filled several key positions, including appointing a firefighter whose primary job would be to train and drill other firefighters on safety procedures and new equipment.

Fiorentini said he has saved the city money by not making the promotions, and that he does not intend to consider them until he gets a better handle on the city's financial picture.

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