Amsterdam City Fire Department staffing levels have dropped below six people on duty on five occasions since November 6, according to Michael Demars, who is president of the Amsterdam Firefighters Union and a city firefighter. He said the situation could potentially cause delays in responding to situations or missed calls, and is due to a recent directive given by Mayor Michael Villa which prohibits the department from calling in additional staff to fill vacancies due to job related injuries, retirement, sick days, or other time off.
In a letter submitted to area news outlets yesterday, Demars wrote, “This not only jeopardizes the safety of firefighters but also puts the citizens at risk. If staffing falls below six people a [vehicle] will have to come out of service. This reduces our capability of answering multiple alarms at once (which happens around 30% of the time) and increases the likelihood that calls will be missed or delayed.”
Reached for comment yesterday, Villa said the directive was aimed at curbing overtime costs at the department in an effort to deal with a negative $3.8 million general fund balance revealed by a recent audit of the city’s 2015-2016 finances. The audit also showed negative balances in the golf course and transportation department funds.
According to Villa, the department has already used all but approximately $20,000 of it’s budgeted $90,000 overtime line, with over seven months still left in the fiscal year.
“We have got to rein in these costs that are killing the city. We simply do not have the money. There’s going to come a point that this budget deficit affects payroll. I can’t be spending money on overtime,” said Villa.
“If there’s a fire, call everybody in, I have no problem with that. But I’m not going staff a platoon on the premise that we’re going to have one,” he added.
Demars said having a six person team ready to respond to a fire is necessary to follow Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standard 1910.134(g)(4) , which prescribes that if a pair of firefighters enter a burning building, that an additional two firefighters must remain outside the building. In addition to the four firefighters, Demars said a pump operator and incident commander are necessary at the scene.
“The pump operator and incident commander at any structure fire are critical tasks that cannot be abandoned,” wrote Demars. “A pump operator, an incident commander, two firefighters inside fighting a fire, and two more outside carrying out a number of different tasks while at the same time at the ready to make a rescue gets us to a minimum of six people on duty.”
In an October 2014 presentation before the Common Council, Fire Chief Michael Whitty also stressed the importance of a six person crew to respond to fires. At the presentation, he said that with less than six firefighters at a scene, he will not send anyone into the a burning building to battle the fire. In this scenario, Whitty said that the goal would be to contain the fire and keep it from spreading, rather than to save the building.
At the presentation, Whitty said, “Fires are fought from the inside out, if you want to save the building. They are fought from the inside out, not the outside in.”
Demars wrote that the department relies on overtime to cover shift shortfalls due to the overall decrease of department staff over the years.
He wrote, “At one time there were enough people per shift to absorb things like a job related injury, retirement, illness or hiring freeze and overtime was almost unheard of. As the department has become smaller simple math indicates that shift shortages have become more likely. I’m sure detractors of the fire department will try and spin this letter as a ‘money grab’ for overtime. We would be happy if the city were able to return our department to prior staffing levels, make our job safer, make the city safer, and never have to pay us overtime.”
Villa said he hopes to see future firefighter contracts address how to avoid overtime costs with a smaller staff.
“You can’t have multiple personnel taking days off and filling that day off with overtime. These days have to stop. Those were the days of ten man shifts. We no longer have ten man shifts,” said Villa.
“We can not ask the tax payers to bear the burden of everything while we operate as if nothing has happened. I’m just not going to sit in that chair and do that. We can’t put our head in the sand and pretend that this is just going to go away on its own,” he said.
Villa said that he is reviewing overtime requests from all city departments on a weekly basis to make sure they are justified and that fire department directive was “step one of many that are going to follow” in order to address the city’s negative fund balances.