Jan 282014

The Groton Board of Selectmen officially backed up Town Manager Mark Haddad’s statements about a two month long period of understaffing day shifts in the town’s fire department and emergency medical services. Monday evening, January 27, the board found that Haddad reduced fire department staffing levels between November and January to reduce overtime costs and that the staffing action, which came a day after the International Association of Fire Fighters local union filed a grievance against the town seeking back pay, was not in retaliation to the grievance.

Fire Lieutenant Tyler Shute, President of Professional Firefighters of Groton International Association of Fire Fighters Local 4879, declined to comment on whether the union would pursue either its grievance or its assertion, made through its attorney in a letter to the town, that the action was retaliatory.

Haddad’s November directive stopped Fire Chief Joe Bosselait from filling vacancies on the department’s day shift with firefighters who would be paid overtime. That resulted in less than the usual complement of four fire fighters being on duty on 69 percent of the weekdays during the two-month cycle. The understaffing also resulted in a number of longer than expected response times to some emergency calls, according to Bosselait and selectman Jack Petropolous.

Petropolous raised the issue at a Board of Selectman’s meeting two weeks ago, calling it a public safety issue. Haddad responded that it was purely a fiscal matter. The possibility of a labor problem being a factor was also discussed. At the January 13 meeting, the board voted to restore full four firefighter staffing on the weekday shifts while it investigated both the situation and Haddad’s actions.

As a result of the selectmen’s investigation over the last two weeks, Haddad was told to confer with Bosselait and Police Chief Donald Palma to arrive at a better overtime policy. Full shift coverage will continue at least until he reports back to the BoS, officials said.

Vice chair of the board Josh Degen told the meeting on Monday that “We don’t want the public to think people were ever put in harm’s way intentionally by the town manager.”

Paying police officers and fire fighters for extra hours is a standard line item in Groton’s — and most town’s — annual budgets. Officials said that this fiscal year’s overtime expenses were higher — by about $25,000 — than anticipated. Haddad responded by ordering the staff reductions verbally in September and October, and then in writing in November. It was not clear what the root cause of the higher expenses were — the result of more overtime hours logged, a budget miscalculation, or other reasons.

Chairman of the BoS Peter Cunningham was unhappy with the way Petropoulos raised the issue, preferring that the issue be handled internally instead of in the public eye.

But Petropoulos was satisfied with the outcome, even though some fellow selectmen and Haddad were unhappy with his tactics.

“It’s back to full staff,” he pointed out.

Also at the Monday evening meeting, Petropoulos clarified one point in his presentation on response times from the January 14 meeting. One combined fire and medical call, on Christmas Day 2013, logged a 26 minute response time, and the reason for that was that the single incident involved multiple calls.

He read from a written statement that:

As part of the presentation that I made to the 1/13/14 Selectmens’ meeting I specified Firefighter and EMS response times, and estimated delays resulting from cuts to Full Time Firefighter staffing, including a delay of 26 minutes on 12/25/13.

It has come to my attention that this could be taken to imply that it took 26 minutes for both the full time and call members to respond to the initial call. In fact, two engines (one with call fire fighters) were on scene within five minutes.

The public safety issue rests in the fact that, had the full time staff been at expected levels, an ambulance would have arrived in tandem with the first engine. Instead, because of staffing cuts, a second call for an ambulance had to be made from the scene. The ambulance arrived on scene within eight minutes of the second call. The 26 minute response was the total amount of time that it took from the initial alarm for the ambulance to arrive on scene.

We are indeed fortunate to have a dedicated fire department, comprised of both full time and call members. I am continually impressed by the commitment that they make and the risk that they take on our behalf. I have no doubt that they will continue to do so every day without hesitation regardless of the circumstances under which they operate.