Fire study: Close 2 fire houses, cut 17.5 jobs

Recommendations — including losing 17.5 positions from the city’s fire department and closing two fire stations — will be presented today at a special meeting of City Council.

A study by public safety consultants Berkshire Advisors Inc. recommended a number of changes to improve efficiency in the Hamilton Fire Department, including increasing the workweek from 48 to 52 hours. This would reduce staff by nine firefighters and save the city $825,000 in overtime costs, according to the study. The city is projected to spend $1.1 million in overtime costs in 2012.

The study also recommends closing two of Hamilton’s oldest fire stations, located on Laurel Avenue and on Shuler Avenue.

If all of the recommendations are followed, the city could reduce the number of firefighters by a total 17.5 positions, the report said.

“The study brought up some points that the department needs,” said Eric Abney, president of Local 20 of the International Association of Fire Fighters that represents the city’s firefighters.

Those needs, he said, included adding another fire prevention position that was eliminated about four years ago, changing how the fire chief is selected, fitness tests, the addition of a fourth EMS squad and adding an administration captain position, which he said is “vital for grant writing to obtain equipment and other items.”

“But closing two firehouses definitely isn’t the answer because the runs won’t disappear,” Abney said.

“I think the public will speak loud and clear that they want their firehouses to stay open,” he said. “It’s not the first time we’ve been through this and it won’t be the last.”

Frank Downie, of PROTOCOL, the informal Lindenwald neighborhood group, said he didn’t hear about the study’s recommendation until Saturday night when he heard from current and retired firefighters.

“I hate to see it,” he said. “We’re trying to build the neighborhood up and this will affect property values and insurance rates. I’m also worried if there would be multiple alarm fire on opposite ends of the city at the same time.”

The report also comes at a time when the city’s fire union is beginning negotiations for a new contract and city officials are trying plug a budget hole of nearly $5.7 million for the 2013 General Fund budget.

Mark Zimov, city financial analyst, said the proposed General Fund budget for the fire department for 2013 was more than $11.3 million, which is down about $1.3 million from the 2012 fire budget.

Zimov said in 2013, the average pay for a Hamilton firefighter that includes wages, longevity, fitness incentives and holding various certifications and excluding overtime will be $75,617 for firefighters and $74,450 for paramedics. He said with benefits added to the salary, the 2013 compensation for a firefighter is projected at $106,197, and $101,985 for paramedics. Those totals also exclude overtime pay, Zimov said.

The costs of closing down a fire station was not available late Monday.

City Council will also consider a supplemental appropriation at their regular Wednesday meeting to increase the fire administration budget by $550,000 and the EMT/Paramedic budget by $600,000 to cover insufficient personnel budgets.

Abney said his union is scheduled to meet today with city negotiators to exchange proposals.

Abney said he’s very concerned about the possibility of as many as 20 firefighters and paramedics being laid off in May when a federal SAFER grant expires. He said fewer firefighters will make it less safe for them to do their jobs and also for the residents in those neighborhoods.

“The guys are nervous (about possibly losing their jobs), and no one wants to see two firehouses shut down,” he said. “You’re looking at guys who have been on the job for 10 years. They can’t just go somewhere else to work because there are age restrictions in place. They’re career professionals and we’ve told them to make their runs and do your job. We hope to have a good conclusion to all of this.”

City Manager Joshua Smith said he wanted to reserve comments until after he hears the consultant’s report at today’s meeting.

Smith said the report indicates there is an overcapacity on the fire side and an under capacity on the EMS side, as 83 percent of the calls are for EMS services. He also added that the consultant the city used was recommended by the city’s fire administration and union.

“We need to realign what we have,” he said. “Anything recommended that can be justified, I’ll support it. Cities need to rethink business models to focus on long term investment aimed at stimulating growth in jobs rather than on short term spending.”

Smith said residents should come with questions with the consultants. He said if council approves the recommendations are approved by council, there should be neighborhood meetings to discuss and focus on the impact on service delivery.

Smith also said the study, which cost about $60,000, “was done so the city could go into negotiations with factual and not arbitrary information.”

“While there are opportunities to improve the performance and and reduce costs in the HFD, these opportunities will be implemented in a department that is already performing at a high level,” the study said. It noted that city firefighters and medics were dedicated professionals who provide a good service to residents and the department was well-managed.

City Council’s special meeting is set for 7:15 p.m. at the Hamilton Municipal Building, 345 High St.

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