Fire Union Reps Explain Staffing Needs, Overtime

Representatives of the Derry Firefighters’ Union, Local said this week that they are not trying to be alarmist in their communication with the public, but are instead striving to present hard facts on what potential budget cuts could mean to residents’ safety.

Ron Sebastian and Greg Laro, president and vice-president of the local chapter, said this week that a $2 cut in the tax rate, proposed earlier this year, would impact services.

But it stops there, Sebastian said. “We’re not telling people, ‘If you support this cut people’s houses will burn, people’s babies will die.’ We are not in the business of instilling fear,” he said.

The fact sheet distributed at a recent budget meeting is just that, Laro said: facts. “These are the numbers we report to the National Fire Incident Report System,” he said.

Various budget scenarios have suggested that personnel will have to be cut to achieve the $2 reduction (closing one fire station and eliminating nine jobs) or an earlier $2.50 reduction (closing one station plus eliminating 22 jobs).

The latest iteration of a budget and the one that was scheduled to be discussed Tuesday, April 21, after the Nutfield News went to press, was a $1 reduction off the tax rate. Town Administrator Galen Stearns has said this will not result in the closure of a station and that the only positions cut will be vacant positions that will be left unfilled through attrition.

But Sebastian and Laro warned that cuts to personnel could affect services in a number of ways.

For one thing, Laro said, for 57 percent of the times when a resident calls 9-1-1 to request fire or ambulance service, the department is already handling at least one other emergency. If one of those emergencies is big, it will necessitate mutual aid from surrounding towns, off-duty firefighters being called in, or both.

With the vacancies unfilled, the current staffing of 15 per shift is “as low as we can go,” Laro said. They run with three people per engine and two per ambulance, he said. They can’t cut the staffing on ambulance calls, he said, because they don’t know what’s waiting for them at the other end. “Will we have to carry someone down the stairs?” he asked.

At 15 per shift they also do not have sufficient staff to put their tanker on the road. “We can’t send the tanker to fires outside the hydrant district,” they said.

“It’s not just the station itself,” Laro said. “The resources are just as important.”

The $2 reduction, proposed earlier this year, would reduce staffing to 14 per shift. “That’s one more person per day than they were running with in 1979,” Laro pointed out. “The town has doubled in size since then.” The population in 1979 was 15,000, he said, and today it is over 30,000.

In 2004 there were 19 firefighters working out of five stations and today there are 15 working out of four stations, the men said.

Last year local firefighters responded to 4,376 incidents, they said.

The men and their union are concerned about response times. For ambulance, they quoted American Heart Association figures that a brain death can occur within four to six minutes after the heart stops. For fire, Laro said the National Fire Protection Agency has stats pointing out that a fire doubles in size roughly every minute that it is unattended.

“It can double as quickly as 30 seconds,” Sebastian said.

Another “hot topic,” and they pardoned the pun, is fire overtime. “We have a large OT budget. I’m not about to deny that,” Sebastian said. But with the required staffing, they need to call in off-duty people when someone is sick or on vacation.

“It’s not like Corporate America – your work will not wait to the next day,” Sebastian pointed out. “We have an obligation and a duty to be fully staffed 24 hours a day. We have to fill those positions.”

Having 16 people per shift would cut down on overtime because they could dial down to 15 if they had to, he said, but overtime is another fact of their working lives.

Some townspeople have suggested going back to an all- or partial volunteer Fire Department. The men doubted that would work with the complexity of Derry’s issues – and the complexity of modern life. “Could you find enough people who work in town and could volunteer for 4,376 incidents?” Sebastian wondered. CERT (Community Emergency Response Team), the department’s civilian volunteer arm, is a “great asset,” he said, but even that team has trouble retaining and recruiting.

The firefighters are also concerned about suggestions that the Hampstead Road station should be closed. It is true that the Hampstead Road and Central Fire Station, at the traffic circle, are only 1.4 miles apart. But Laro said it made more sense to close Central and open a new station in the southwest corner of Derry. This was in the plans at one time and even went to the point of having an architectural study done, but the then-Council voted no, he said. To build in that area, perhaps at Shute’s Corner, would lower response times for that part of Derry, he said.

The men also distinguished between official correspondence from the Fire Department and the union’s Facebook page. “The fire union has a Facebook page,” Sebastian said. “It is not tied in to the Fire Department.” The union has had a Facebook page for years, Sebastian said, though he admitted, “We’re probably more vocal now.”

The fact sheet is just that, a list of facts and not opinions, Laro said. “On a Facebook page we’re entitled to our opinion,” he said. But the Facebook page also includes “red flag” warnings about controlled burns, fire prevention tips, general safety tips and more.

Though Stearns was planning on presenting a budget based on a $1 cut to the tax rate, leaving only vacant positions unfilled, the two union reps still had concerns. “It’s good that he’s not laying people off,” Sebastian said. “But with 15 per shift, we still can’t activate the tanker.”

Laro is also nervous about Stearns’ proposal to make up the gap with the Unexpended Fund Balance. “It will save us from making cuts this year but will put us in the position next year of having to make cuts,” he said.

“But the $1 is a good point for the Councilors to start from,” Sebastian said. “The $2 and $2.50, they’re too extreme.”

The firefighters also disputed Stearns’ and the Council’s claim that no unions responded to a letter from Stearns asking them to consider “compensation reduction” and to meet with him on that topic. Sebastian said his union, which has worked without a new contract for three years, is ready to resume negotiations and said so in a letter to Stearns.

“In 2011 our contract was due to expire,” he said. “The Town Administrator at that time asked us to make concessions and we agreed to extend the contract for one year and to give up our cost-of-living raise.” Sebastian said the union and town resumed negotiations later in 2011.

In September 2014, he said, it was determined that “both sides had worked through a lot of stuff, and we were ready to take a break.” They decided to break until Stearns came on as Town Administrator.

Their response to Stearns’ mid-February letter was, “We are willing to get back to the negotiating table.” But they haven’t yet, he said, because Stearns said he had had no direction from the Council to resume negotiations.

Sebastian recalled a recent 24-hour shift he worked. “After 1 a.m. we had four simultaneous calls,” he said. “It consumed all our on-duty staff, and we requested mutual aid from Londonderry.” In last week’s brush fire near Bypass 28 they also had to request mutual aid, he said.