Overtime and staff structure were the main topics at the Town Council’s review of the Fire Department budget, sparking discussions on how safe Derry really is.
Fire Chief George Klauber presented the three budgets he is responsible for – Dispatch, Emergency Management and Prevention and Emergency Services – at the Thursday, April 25 budget meeting.
Klauber’s Prevention and Emergency Services budget drew the most conversation. His working budget was $10,141,414, up from last year’s $9,969,580.
Klauber’s budget includes no new hires, he said. “People are hinting at retirement, and we’ll replace them with promotions from within,” he said.
The “permanent positions” line is down $80,000, $4,123,147 as compared to last year’s $4,202,439. Klauber said as senior staff leave, he replaces them with new recruits who are at the bottom of the pay scale.
Klauber explained that he has 16 people per shift, including an officer, firefighter and paramedic at each of Derry’s four stations and a battalion chief who also acts as shift commander at each station.
Councilor Mark Osborne observed, “That’s one supervisor for every three non-supervisors. “Is that normal?” Osborne asked.
Klauber said the proportion is typically one supervisor for every four non-supervisors, but Derry doesn’t have four-person engine companies.
Osborne asked about the salaries for battalion chiefs, noting that the four battalion chiefs represent a total of $438,961 in the salary line. “There are four captains below them, 12 lieutenants below them, you at the top – is this a redundant rank?” he asked.
Klauber said the battalion chief system was partly due to the consolidation with East Derry in 2005. “Where most departments this size have an assistant chief, we do not,” he said. “We require each shift commander to have a specific duty.” BC (Battalion Chief) Michael Doyle is in charge of facilities, he said; BC Michael Gagnon in charge of operations; BC David Hoffman in charge of apparatus; and BC Jack Webb in charge of training.
Councilor Tom Cardon observed that Nashua has a $9.9 million budget and serves 80,000 people. “I know it’s apples and oranges,” he said.
“Nashua does not run an ambulance service,” Councilor Neil Wetherbee responded.
Klauber said by National Fire Protection Agency standards, Derry is understaffed. There should be one officer and three firefighters per engine, he said, with a response time of four minutes to 90 percent of the area serviced.
Klauber said he could not cut the battalion commander positions because of union regulations, and he would have to cut firefighters if he cut any personnel.
“What would happen if there were cuts?” Councilor Brad Benson asked.
Klauber replied, “It would result in a station closing.” And a longer response time, perhaps up to 10 minutes, he said.
Benson referred to his heart attack last fall, saying, “If there was a 10-minute response time, I wouldn’t be here.”
Osborne suggested flagging the “permanent positions” line and obtaining more information on the battalion chiefs’ jobs. He also asked for a breakdown of the calls and the number of fires last year.
Benson reminded fellow Councilors, “We don’t cut a position – we cut a number.”
Overtime also came under the Councilor’s red pencil. The working budget was $657,068 in overtime, up from last year’s $571,396, and Cardon made a motion to trim it by $50,000.
Klauber said with his current staff, he can’t use all the equipment because there aren’t enough people to run them. For example, if there’s a fire in East Derry, Central Fire Station can’t use its tanker to respond.
“If you reduce this line by $50,000, it will be a worse impact than we have now,” he warned.
Klauber said if overtime is cut, it will mean the end of the free CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) classes offered at the Hampstead Road station several times a year. It would affect school programs, because the firefighter who gives the programs comes in separate from a regular shift.
“We can’t have someone on call,” Klauber said. “What if they have to leave for a fire?” The cut would also affect the October Open House event, he said.
Wetherbee suggested flagging the overtime and discussing it along with the permanent positions, noting that “the two are interactive.”
But Osborne put a motion on the table to vote on cutting the overtime. With a $50,000 cut, it’s still a $24,000 increase over last year’s OT budget, he said.
The vote was four in favor of the cut – Osborne, Cardon, Al Dimmock and Chairman Michael Fairbanks – and two against, Wetherbee and Benson. Phyllis Katsakiores abstained.
The new working budget is $10,091,414, and the overtime line is $607,068.
In other business, the Dispatch budget passed at $741,620, up from last year’s $695,810.
The Emergency Management budget passed after the Council trimmed the budget by $16,250, asking Klauber to place the cost of a portable sign in his current budget. The new working budget is $55,789, a drop from last year’s $60.202.