Orono council committee approves addition of float change to help understaffed firefighters
ORONO, Maine – Despite the start of a new fiscal year of nearly three months, understaffing and extreme overtime are straining the budget of the Orono Fire Department.
City manager Sophie Wilson told the city council’s finance and operations committee on Monday that staffing conditions within the department were reaching dire levels. Last week, a firefighter who was supposed to work 42 hours a week worked 120 hours because of the low number of available employees, Wilson said.
For several years, the fire department has operated with a minimum staff of about five members per shift. In July, the department added a fourth quarter to help distribute the amount of work and hours among more firefighters.
This is not the first time the ministry has faced this problem, Wilson said. But with three firefighters absent – two of whom are on indefinite but extended sick leave and the third expected to return in October – the department is likely to slip into the red when it comes to its budgeted overtime, she said.
“Based on these absences and the known vacation time, we would expect overtime expenses for the first half of the year to be $ 111,732,” Wilson said in background provided to the board. “This does not include requests for additional time off, absences due to illness, injury or family medical leave. ”
The solution would be to add a “float,” meaning someone who is not assigned to a specific shift but who would work full time, Wilson said.
The department is also planning a retirement in six months, so the plan Wilson presented would add a new float to the department and allow time to test the system and see if a second would be needed.
“I want to put this into perspective, that asking firefighters – or any employee – to work overtime has two costs. One is the financial cost, ”Wilson said. “The other is someone who has to work… an average of 42 hours a week, working 124 hours last week. This is the intangible side.
Councilor Meghan Gardner said she was concerned about the amount of firefighters’ work and that she was in favor of adding a float to ease the burden.
“It’s not like you work in a flower shop, it’s a very stressful and intense job,” Gardner said. “Asking people to continually push themselves beyond the limit of what they should be doing is a safety risk.”
Contractually, the city is not allowed to allow shifts of four people or less, and at the current rate, Chief Geoffrey Low has often had to step in to be that fifth person, according to Wilson.
With all advisers in favor of the move, Wilson can now explore the possibility of adding the float to ease the burden on the department.
Although the position is permanent, city staff will be able to assess whether a second float is needed in February 2022, Wilson said.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported the number of hours worked by a firefighter last week as well as the number of shifts for the Orono Fire Department. The firefighter worked 120 hours and the fire department added a fourth shift.