Monday night, Groton’s Board of Selectmen temporarily reversed a November 13 directive by Town Manager Mark Haddad that cut emergency services operating expenses, resulted in marginal fire and EMS staffing levels, and dramatically increased fire and ambulance response times for the last two months. Haddad’s order reduced the number of fire fighters and emergency medical staff on duty below its normal four-person complement 69 percent of the time over those two months, Selectman Jack Petropolous told the board and an audience packed with fire department staff on Monday night.
Petropolous fired up the discussion with a presentation detailing the effects of Haddad’s directive entitled “Cuts to Firefighter / EMT Coverage & Impact on Public Safety.” Petropolous pointed out that since Haddad’s directive to Bosselait, that ordered him to not fill staffing vacancies with overtime staff unless coverage fell below two full time fire fighters, Groton had been protected by the regular four-person staff just 31 percent of the time. In the 42 weekdays between November 13, 2013 and Monday January 13, 2014, fire and EMS had been understaffed, with either two or three people on duty, 69 percent of the time.
Haddad said it was more of a financial issue. He told selectmen that Fire Department salaries and overtime were costing the town about $23,600 per pay period. He also said that overtime expenses had reduced the amount of cash in the department budget to a point that only about $21,000 could be paid per pay period through the rest of the fiscal year, which ends in June, 2014. He cited calculations that the fire department would operate at a deficit of about $35,000 for the remainder of the fiscal year.
Petropolous, citing what he termed “significant public safety issues,” pushed for an immediate return to full four-person staffing and a funding level that would ensure four responders on the day shift. Selectwoman Anna Eliot thought the issue was essentially a union issue, and didn’t back Petropolous. Selectman Stuart Schulman also declined to back Petropolous, questioned the fire department’s scheduling procedure. Both Eliot and Schulman pushed for a committee to study the situation before making a decision. BoS Chairman Peter Cunningham was out of town and did not attend the meeting.
Schulman explained his position in more detail on Thursday, writing in an email, “I determined that the shifts were fully and properly scheduled, but, 69% of the time, the scheduled employee(s) could not fill his shift, thus making overtime virtually standard operating procedure, not an occasional need as we had envisioned when formulating the budget. Why are our employees unable to meet their scheduled commitments 69% of the time? That was the question I was asking, and I did not get a satisfactory answer.”
Fire Lieutenant Tyler Shute, President of the Association of Fire Fighters, Local 4879, said that the pattern of occasional vacancies in staffing isn’t unusual. During November and December, when overtime pay was prohibited and the 69% understaffing rate occurred, it was caused in part by his vacation — he’s an avid hunter, he said, and deer season was in full swing. Another full timer was also on vacation, so there were more openings on more shifts than usual.
Degen, who chaired the meeting, offered a compromise: a motion both to study the issue and to restore funds to pay fire fighters for overtime required to keep Groton fire and EMS staffed with four personnel during the department’s busiest time period, weekdays between 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. The cost of the staffing for the two week period was estimated to be about $7,000.
“I don’t give a rat’s patootie how much it costs for the next two weeks.” Degen said. “It’s a public safety issue.”
Degen’s motion is time limited to two weeks, while the board, Haddad, and other town officials study the situation. The board unanimously approved his motion. Immediately afterward, in the lobby of Town Hall, Fire Chief Joe Bosselait ordered Acting Lieutenant James Crocker to report for duty Tuesday morning to ensure that Groton was protected by four first responders. Groton has five full time fire fighters; the remainder of the department is made up of call, or volunteer fire fighters.
At the heart of the issue is what happens when a full-time firefighter is scheduled to work, but does not or cannot work his or her regular schedule. Through established custom in Groton, now backed up by a union contract, other full time fire fighters receive the right of first refusal to fill any vacant shift. If that shift adds hours over and above the normal workweek (42 hours), he or she is due overtime pay for those hours.
If the most senior full-time firefighter is unable to work a shift, the opening is offered to the other full time fire fighters, most senior first, under the union contract’s right of first refusal clause. If no full time firefighter picks up the shift, it can be offered to one of the department’s call fire fighters, but not until the full time employees have turned it down.
In November and December, because of Haddad’s order that no overtime pay be granted, when someone could not work a normal shift, the full time fire fighters who were available were never offered the opportunity to fill the open shifts. Because the work was never offered, no full time firefighter could refuse or accept the open shift. Because of that, call firefighters were prohibited from filling the shifts. And the number of people available to respond to calls dipped.
The scheduling equation is further complicated by staggered scheduling. Weekdays, the first shift for fire fighters begins at 6 a.m., when two people report for duty. Two more, to make up the minimum complement of four people during the peak alarm period, start another shift at 8 a.m. At 4 p.m., the first (6 a.m.) shift ends. Two hours later, at 6 p.m., the second shift ends.
Citing information from Bosselait, Petropolous outlined the town’s staffing levels, which adhere to national guidelines:
- An ambulance call requires two people — a driver and a medic.
- A fire or other emergency call to a building requires four people: two in an ambulance, and two on a fire engine. To actually enter a burning building, at least four people need to be on the scene — two enter the building and two stay outside to assist or perform a rescue if needed.
This staffing model has been in place since 2009, when “Town Meeting funds a 4th full time firefighter position in order to provide a staffing model of four on duty personnel Monday through Friday 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.” Petropolous said. He noted that 45 percent of all calls for help come in during that time period.
Petropolous presented an analysis of response time to four emergency calls received between December 19 and 26, using criteria he helped develop for use by the Central Fire Station Siting Committee several years ago. Again, the raw information came Bosselait, he said.
- On December 19, a call for “respiratory distress” from Rivercourt Residences went unanswered by Groton. Instead of an anticipated time of nine minutes, a mutual aid ambulance took the call — in 18 minutes.
- On December 20, a house fire also required mutual aid to make up a minimum crew. Instead of the standard four minute response, the call required 16 minutes.
- A report of smoke in a building on Christmas Day, December 25, normally a five minute response, took 26 minutes. A three person crew responded directly instead of four with an engine and ambulance. A medical issue was involved, so a second call had to be made to staff and deliver the ambulance.
- A medical call on December 26, with an expected response of seven minutes, required 16.
Chief Bosselait confirmed that all the data in Petropolous’s presentation was accurate. He did point out that the two-month snapshot was unique — the fire department had never had to work without the safety net of overtime.
He later explained the long response on the Christmas Day “smoke in a building” call: “The 26 minutes is from the tone (first dispatch) for the fire call, to (a second call for) the ambulance on scene by call EMT’s after being requested by command being on scene for a few minutes and determined that an ambulance was needed to check the homeowners/ They had been in the building when the fire started — for possible smoke inhalation, not 26 minutes for the fire department to arrive on scene. If that day there had been a fully staffed shift both the engine and ambulance would have responded to the incident together and the response time would have been 4-5 minutes.”
Petropolous was particularly incensed by a second effect of Haddad’s directive, which he said broke a promise that Haddad and selectmen made to Town Meeting voters last fall: that an supplementary budget increase for fire and police personnel would be all that was required through the end of the fiscal year.
At the October 21, 2013 Town Meeting, Petropolous said voters had been told that Article 2: “The requested appropriation of $58,472 will fully cover the retroactive pay (including overtime), as well as provide enough funding in FY 2014.” The article was passed by a majority vote after minimal discussion.
ARTICLE 2- PROTECTION OF PERSONS AND PROPERTY Mover: Josh Degen
MOTION 2: PROTECTION OF PERSONS & PROPERTY: By increasing the Protection of
Persons and Property Appropriation from $2,974,896 to $3,118,168 so as to: increase Line Item
1300 — “Police Department Salaries” by $4,800 from $270,340 to $275,140; increase Line Item
1301 — “Police Department Wages” by $80,000 from $1,318,025 to $1,398,025; and increase
Line Item 1311 — “Fire Department Wages” by $58,472 from $566,843 to $625,315; And to raise
and appropriate the sum of $143,272 to fund said increases.
Haddad’s directive broke that promise, he said.