February 23, 2023
Moving Forward with Public Safety Staffing
By Gregory T. Federspiel
A major focus during the crafting of the proposed FY24 budget has been on various options for our public safety operations. Many changes have occurred recently in each of the three branches – Police, Fire and Harbor – necessitating a new look at ways to continue to provide residents with a high level of service in these important areas.
Public safety staffing poses a particular challenge. When an employee is out on vacation or sick, we typically need to backfill the position to ensure that sufficient coverage is being provided. For both police and fire the bare bones minimum is two on 24/7. For the Fire Department, it is much better to have at least three personnel on duty 24/7. During a structure fire at least four are needed to maintain a “2 in/2 out” standard – for every two fire fighters inside a structure on fire, there should be two outside providing support. Contrast this say with a DPW employee or an administrative position -- if these positions are vacant for a few days there is no need to backfill the vacancy.
As mentioned in an earlier column, more water patrol is needed to keep up with the increased volume of boaters we are seeing in and around Manchester harbor. We will be able to provide greater water coverage by re-directing the hours of our School Resource Officer during the summer. In addition, we have a new reserve officer with extensive water patrol experience and can provide additional coverage Friday through Sunday. Funds for these two additions are already in the Town Budget.
For Police, we have historically relied on reserve officers to fill-in for regular police officers who are out on leave time. With the recently enacted Police Reform Act passed by the state which requires all reserve officers to have the same level of training as full-time officers, reserves are moving on to full-time positions. In the last few months 10 of our 12 reserve officers have moved on to regular positions. Filling in vacant shifts by paying regular officers overtime is very expensive and risks over-working our regular officers. Instead, the FinCom and the Select Board have agreed to Chief Fitzgerald’s proposal to add two more regular patrol officers to the department. This brings the total to 14 plus the SRO. Our reserve expenses will be significantly reduced, off-setting half the cost of this increase in regular staff.
An added benefit of this new staffing in the Police Department is the ability to provide station coverage by a Police Officer during most day and evening shifts. This new level of coverage allows for enhanced services to anyone walking into the station for assistance.
The FinCom and the Select Board have also agreed to increase the staffing of the Fire Department. We have lost the services of a call force, a national trend. Adding two more Fire Fighters/Paramedics will bring the total to 16 plus the Fire Chief. This creates four crews of four. These two additional fire fighters comes on the heals of providing one new staff member in each of the past two years, originally as “floaters” to backfill staff out on leave time. Overall, a 33% increase in staffing is proposed in a three year period.
For many years the department has had 12 fire fighters/paramedics. This provided four crews of three but anytime a staff member was out on leave time, the staffing level either dropped down to two or another staff member worked an overtime shift to keep three personnel on duty. Going to 16 staff means when one member of a four person crew is out, we can drop down to three without incurring the expense of overtime. The overtime savings covers most of the new cost for the new hires. With 16, we have a staff of four on every shift up to 60% of the time.
Last summer, two fire fighters left the Town’s employment – one to retirement and another to work at a larger department. Their replacements are fully trained paramedics but not certified fire fighters yet. Preference is given for trained paramedics as it is easier to obtain fire certification then it is to obtain a paramedic level of licensure. The Department decided to have bring on a fourth person to have three fully trained staff plus the new hire not yet trained in firefighting. This caused the overtime account for the Department to be overspent. Absent new funds which must be approved by voters, staffing needs to be adjusted downwards in order for the budget to balance. Thus, as a temporary measure, staffing will drop to two on duty during the next few months. This has caused concern for some but fortunately, we have robust mutual aid agreements thus if a large incident occurs emergency response will still be forthcoming. Come the new fiscal year in July we will have more fully trained staff than we ever have had in the Fire Department.
Staffing to the appropriate level is a challenging balancing act. From the perspective of those providing the emergency responses, you always want to be prepared for the worse 24/7 with as many staff and as much equipment as you can muster. In a world of unlimited funds we would of course do this. But funds are limited and choices need to be made. Fortunately, we have been able to strike a reasonable balance between the risks we face and the cost of minimizing the risks. I believe we will continue to do so in a prudent manner.