Council OK’s fire department budget, will consider ambulance service for next year

The consensus among common council members was to keep Mayor Michael Villa’s proposed budget lines for the city’s fire department unchanged at Monday’s budget review meeting. Members also agreed to look into the idea of having the department run an ambulance service and the possibility of incorporating it into next year’s budget.

Fire Chief Michael Whitty defended the department’s overtime line, which would be set at $85,000 for the year under Villa’s proposed budget. The amount is an increase over the current year’s $65,000 level. According to Controller Matthew Agresta, the department is already approximately $16,000 over their limit for the year.

In previous years, the department’s overtime budget has been as high as $100,000 to $150,000. In both 2014 and 2015, the common council set the level at $60,500 and $65,000 respectively. Last year, the department also went over their budgeted amount for overtime.

“I’d like to see it at a hundred [thousand], that’s what it’s been at historically,” said Whitty. “A couple years ago the council cut forty grand out of it, with no real plan on how I was going to operate once that was expended.”

Whitty explained that overtime is typically used when firefighters are called in to cover vacations. According to Agresta, approximately half the overtime is used during the summer. Whitty said that overtime is also currently being used to cover two staff members who are off due to injuries and one position which is waiting to be filled due to a retirement.

Whitty also defended his procedure of sending a minimum of six staff to the site of any structural fire. He said that this allows two firefighters to enter the building, while two stay outside. If the two inside the structure have trouble or are trapped, the two firefighters outside would be available to go in to help. The other two firefighters outside are the battalion chief or “incident commander”, who looks at the overall situation, coordinating the firefighting operation and calls in additional resources if necessary, and a pump operator.

“If we go down any less than [six firefighters], we’re not going to be able to – in most cases – send two guys inside the fire,” said Whitty.

At a meeting last year, Whitty said that if he did not have at least six firefighters available at a fire, he would not send firefighters into a building, but rather take a defensive stance, keeping the fire from spreading to other buildings rather than trying to save the building.

Whitty said he was able to cut expenses this year in order to increase the overtime line, reducing the severance sick pay line by $12,000, and the gasoline and diesel fuel lines by $2,000 each.

“We’re as lean as can be and still maintain some type of effective response here,” said Whitty.

After agreeing to keep the proposed lines unchanged, members talked about the idea of having the fire department run an ambulance service, an idea that was included in last year’s proposed budget by former mayor Ann Thane, but was not approved by the council, who cited lack of time to study the issue, and a restriction on the service by the city’s charter.

“Our plan is to incorporate the ambulance service in next year’s budget,” said Alderman Jim Martuscello. “We need all the facts and the figures to go with it. Which gives us a year of preparation…all the questions to be asked, all the expenses to be brought out.”

Currently, the city’s fire department responds to emergency medical calls, and almost all their staff are certified as paramedics, but because the department does not have ambulance vehicles, they cannot transport patients to the hospital or bill the insurance companies. Last year, Whitty presented his research into operating the service and projected potential revenues in the range of $600,000 annually.

“I think we need to look at it and take our time, because the last time we brought it up, it was thrown in front of us,” said Alderman Ed Russo, who served on the council last year.

While Alderman Chad Majewski agreed that “we all want it to work,” he added, “It also needs to be studied outside. It needs to be an independent study. We can’t have people inside looking at it.”

Tim Becker

Tim Becker is the owner of Anthem Websites Inc. which publishes The Compass. He serves as both editor and a writer.