WILMINGTON, MA — At this week’s Selectmen Meeting, Wilmington Fire Chief Joe McMahon and Wilmington Deputy Fire Chief Bill Cavanaugh made a presentation to the board, requesting the town fund eight new firefighter positions beginning in Fiscal Year 2020 (July 2019).
McMahon and Cavanaugh laid out several justifications for their request.
Calls Have Drastically Increased While Staffing Has Stayed Flat
Between 2009 and 2017, Cavanaugh noted that service calls have increased 24%. Staffing levels, on the other hand, have remained flat. No new positions have been added to the position since FY09.
The Department currently has 1 chief, 1 deputy chief, 2 daytime lieutenants (one operation and one fire prevention), 4 shift lieutenants, and 32 firefighters. Wilmington operates with four 9-men shifts, each with 1 shift lieutenant and his 8 firefighters. The department’s total number of personnel is 40.
“It’s a daily occurrence that station is empty,” said Chief Joe McMahon, noting it happens when there’s two runs happening at the same time. “The station is empty twice, maybe three times a day. No one is available to respond because they’re tied up. We then have to rely on mutual aid, which causes a delay in response.”
Under the new proposal, shifts would increase from nine to eleven. Each shift would have a captain, a lieutenant, and 9 firefighters.
“We’re looking to hire eight new firefighters,” said McMahon. In addition, some of the current lieutenants would take the captain exams and seek to be promoted.
Assistant Town Manager Casey estimated the average cost of a new firefighter in Year #1 to be $102,842. That includes $55,267 in base pay; $20,071 in health insurance; $7,500 in OPEB liabilities; $5,000 in turnout gear; $4,500 in an education incentive (bachelor’s); $4,145 in injury coverage; $2,923 in holiday pay; $1,934 in retirement; $801 in Medicare; and $700 in a clothing alliance.
Overtime Costs Exploding
“There has been some concerns expressed by the Finance Committee with respect to overtime costs associated with the Fire Department,” noted Town Manager Jeff Hull. “There are a number of reasons for overtime, including vacations, personal time, bereavement time, and military leave. More recently, however, we’ve been struggling with a few issues. One being costs associated with personnel who are out because of work or non-work injuries. The other being costs associated with the changeover of personnel after retirements.”
Cavanaugh noted the department’s overtime costs in FY09 totaled $377,000. Last FY, overtime costs were just shy of a $1,000,000.
“We’re currently filling overtime on every shift, sometimes up to three spots per shift,” said Deputy Chief Bill Cavanaugh. “A lot of that is having to back fill due to injuries and vacancies.”
Assistant Town Manager Dee Casey noted it can take nearly one calendar year — from the start of the process to the end — to get a new firefighter recruited, trained, and counted towards staffing levels.
“With the additional firefighters, we won’t be replacing man-to-man when it comes to overtime. You could have a shift be down one man without having to replace anyone,” added Cavanaugh, who also noted that if a substation in North Wilmington is soon built, the department would already have enough staff on hand to man the station.
Town Manager Hull has yet to determine how much the proposal would save the town in annual Fire Department overtime.
Injuries Taking Their Toll
Wilmington’s Fire Department has recently been hit hard with injuries. Six individuals were out on leave this summer, with four still remain on leave.
“I’ve been here since 1982. I’ve never seen a summer like we had before. Some of the guys worked up to 124 hours a week. I can’t say enough about the guys who stepped up and covered shifts,” added McMahon. “It’s been a tough year. We still have four guys out. And we’re not talking about strained backs. We’re talking about long-term, surgically corrected injuries.”
Upcoming Key Change In The Law
McMahon noted that beginning in September 2019, OSHA (the Occupational Safety & Health Administration) is enacting a “two in, two out” rule for all fire departments.
“If we have a fire, two firefighters would go in and we would need two firefighters standing outside with all their gear on ready to relieve. And we cannot count the pump operator. So we would need five firefighters for each fire run,” McMahon told the board. “This used to be a recommendation from the National Fire Protection Association, but it will soon be the law…. If we decide to fight a fire with 3 or 4 firefighters, OSHA will not only come after me, but they’ll fine the town as well.”
NFPA Staffing Recommendations
McMahon also noted that the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) generally recommends five firefighters be assigned to one officer. Under Wilmington’s current model, the ratio is 8:1. Adding a captain position to each shift would help bring Wilmington in line with best practices.
Selectmen Support The Proposal
“I would take your recommendation,” said Selectman Mike McCoy. “I’m not going to micromanage. You’re the professionals. I want to hear what we need. I think we need to bite the bullet and figure out how we’re going to fund this. We need to take care of these guys, and most importantly, take care of the residents….Also, it’s long overdue for us to do something [about] a substation in North Wilmington.”
“I support hiring additional firefighters to come into compliance and increase the safety of our firefighters, who are also lacking the crucial time they need for training,” said Selectman Greg Bendel. ” I totally support the idea of a substation. I’m disappointed that it wasn’t in the Facilities Master Plan. It should be of the utmost priority… I urge the Town Manager to make this [staffing increase request] a priority in his next budget for the safety of our firefighters and the safety of our residents.”
“With the cost of a first year firefighter being about $102,000 and with the FY18 overtime costs being nearly $1 million, I’ve got to think that the [overtime] number goes down significantly and the bottom line number won’t change that much,” said Selectman Jonathan Eaton. “This is a priority for me… And I would like to see the North Wilmington substation happen in the near future [too].”
“I also agree with my colleagues and wholeheartedly support this plan,” said Selectman Ed Loud. “It’s needed for many reasons, including for the safety of our firefighters and every resident in town. I urge the Town Manager to get this ball rolling.”
“The biggest challenge, unquestionably, is doing all this in a way that won’t shock the budget,” responded Town Manager Jeff Hull. “When you’re talking about eight personnel of any sort, that’s a large cost. Between now and the time the budget is finalized, that’s going to be one of my priorities — figuring out how we can do this in a managed way.”
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