The city administration started an 18-week academy for fire recruits knowing that possibly more recruits could graduate than there were jobs in the department. And that’s what happened. A class of 24 graduated, giving the department eight more firefighters than needed to fill the budgeted ranks of the department.
While the city could have called up 16 of the graduates, leaving eight on the list to fill vacancies as they occurred, the administration chose to hire all 24.
Warwick Fire Chief James McLaughlin says it was the right decision. Mayor Scott Avedisian provided his blessing, reasoning the city would be faced with unemployment compensation costs had it not taken on the full 24 and that the added staff will reduce the overtime costs that have plagued the department year after year.
This year has been no different than others in terms of overtime. The department has spent two-thirds of their $1.3 million overtime budget already, and it’s just the halfway point of the fiscal year. Department overtime has long been a bone of contention with certain council members who consistently question why the chief can’t get overtime costs under control.
With a full complement of personnel, plus an additional eight firefighters, McLaughlin said the department is already starting to see a decline in overtime. Overtime costs for the pay period ending Dec. 2 was $24,895 compared to $2,650 for the Dec. 16 pay period, he said.
“You’re seeing the impact of the new firefighters,” McLaughlin said.
There’s no way of knowing when members of the force will retire or when an unforeseen event such as an accident or illness will happen. When it does having the added personnel will be of benefit.
But whether having all department positions filled will prove to be a savings over paying overtime is not a calculation the chief has made, nor will he venture a guess.
City Finance director Ernest Zmyslinski said the additional eight firefighters will cost the city $366,000 plus benefits through the end of the current fiscal year. That means the salary costs of the entire 24 will be $1,098,000 through the end of the year, or more than what the department would pay in overtime based on the expenditures for the first six months of the year.
There’s more than money to consider, in the opinion of Assistant Chief James Kenney. He points out that while paying overtime may result in savings, firefighters need a break from being on duty and without it they are subject to fatigue.
“Excessive overtime is not a good thing financially and for personnel,” he said.
McLaughlin’s goal is to avoid any predictable overtime by having 52 firefighters on a shift (six would be floaters) to cover vacation time.
“That’s the position here. To put a business plan to it,” he said.
Still, the department now has eight more firefighters than needed to staff all four shifts with 52. Keeping those eight “bonus” personnel on staff, as McLaughlin says, “was the right thing to do.” The eight have been assigned to Stations 10, 9 and 6, all single engine stations that are staffed by two firefighters and an officer.
Asked about keeping the eight firefighters as opposed to laying them off after graduating from the academy, Mayor Avedisian said in an email, “Annually, we have tried to balance out if it was better to pay overtime or to hire new people. In this case, the new recruits will substantially save on the overtime budget. In fact, I think that the Chief will show you that it is extremely low each week. In this case, the unemployment that you would need to pay recruits was the mitigating factor that swung the pendulum in favor of hiring new people instead of relying on overtime.”
However, neither Zmyslinski nor McLaughlin could say what unemployment compensation, which the city self-insures for, would have cost or, in fact, since they had been paid as trainees for 18 weeks whether they were eligible for unemployment.
McLaughlin feels the department is properly sized for the city, pointing out that Warwick is unique to other Rhode Island municipalities in that it has 39 miles of shoreline and Green Airport. The department maintains two fire boats – one in Pawtuxet Cove and a second in Warwick Cove – and foam equipment for fighting fuel fires as would be required if there was an aircraft fire.
“Forty-six [the number of personnel dictated by minimum manning requirements and stations] is a good number to protect 80,000 people,” McLaughlin said.
Last year, the department responded to 16,109 incidents of which 12,700 were rescue and fire calls. So far this calendar year, the department has responded to 15,183 incidents.
McLaughlin doesn’t see reducing the size of the department as an option, yet he points out cost is a constant consideration. He notes that department personnel have aggressively pursued grants and that in the last six years have won state and federal grants totaling $7.6 million. These grants have paid for training of the department’s technical rescue team to perform rescues from confined areas such as a wind turbine; development of a flammable liquids task force; training of the Port of Providence Maine Task Force; acquisition of the department’s boats and construction and equipping of the fire training tower at Station 8 next to Ann & Hope.
“We don’t sit here. We’re proactive to get funds to offset the taxpayer’s cost,” he said. “We’re watchful of all expenses.”
Firefighters work two 10-hour days and two 14-hour nights in a workweek. The department is divided into four platoons with a minimum staffing of 46 firefighters. Now with the addition of 24, the department has assigned six “floaters” to each platoon who fill in for those who are absent because of scheduled vacations (new members of the department get 12 days of vacation after the first year. The maximum is 24 days after 20 years.)
Even though there may have been enough bodies to fill all positions of a platoon, vacations still end up costing the department based on the rank of the position being filled. For example, a private can’t fill the position of a captain, whereas a lieutenant can. In this case, the lieutenant steps up to take the captain’s slot and the private fills in for the lieutenant with each getting a bump in pay commensurate to the position they are filling.
“We need to have 52 on a shift [the 46 plus the six floaters] to cover that vacation time,” says McLaughlin.
The department has an administrative staff of 12 that is made up of eight battalion chiefs [two battalion chiefs per platoon], a deputy chief of training, two assistant chiefs and the chief. Overall, according to the budget personnel costs for the department are budgeted at $16,565,935 this fiscal year.
So far this year personnel costs, exclusive of overtime, are running at 43 percent of budget because of the number of vacancies. Training academy costs were $259,200 for personnel plus $18,400 in other expenditures.
Unlike police that can send recruits to the state-run police academy when they have a vacancy, the department is faced with running its own academy. As a result, the department waits until there are a significant number of openings to make running an academy worthwhile, relying on current staffing and overtime to bridge the gap.
McLaughlin said a state fire academy is in the planning stages, and if that happens the department could fill vacancies more rapidly. At the moment, however, the department has an additional eight personnel.