By Jeff Gallatin
City officials are moving the fire department’s fire prevention officer from a 40-hour-per-week job to a regular shift for at least the summer – a move the fire chief says hurts public safety and hampers the department.
Mayor Debbie Sutherland, fire department officials and City Council have been discussing the issue for several months, with the administration and the fire department contending the move would cause problems, while council officials have said in the current tight budget climate, the move is necessary. Sutherland issued the order Friday, saying it is effective July 3.
“As you know, there has been much discussion with City Council over the past year regarding moving the fire prevention officer from 40 hours per week to one of the 3 shifts,” she said in the order. “While I have not supported this move, current personnel shortages have negatively impacted overtime expenditures requiring that the fire prevention officer be placed back on shift.
“I consider this move temporary in nature until the proposed 2 new firefighters have been hired, trained and placed on active duty. I know that this will require flexibility from the department in addressing inspections and also know that the BVFD will do the best it can under the circumstances.”
Fire Chief Chris Lyons said June 22 moving the fire prevention officer to a shift effectively negates the position.
“It doesn’t work with an inspector doing a shift,” he said. “They’re busy as well. This essentially means that commercial inspections won’t get done, as well as schools and other training and fire department work which the officer has handled. It is a threat to safety because those inspections won’t be getting done.”
Sutherland and Council Finance Committee Chairman Mike Young both said there will have to be flexibility on the part of the department to get the work done.
“They’re going to have to think outside of the box and be a little creative,” she said. “The plan is to have the inspector on shift until the new firefighters are on board and ready to go on shift work.”
Sutherland said the hiring process is already under way.
“It takes time to check candidates, do background, then get someone hired and trained,” she said. “We hope to have the new firefighters on board and ready to go in September.”
Young said continued tight finances are helping push the moves.
“Fire department overtime is killing the budget,” he said. “We’ve put $15,000 into it in the last few weeks. We’re taking this action to have the department covered. The move isn’t taking effect until early July, so they’ll still be able to handle Bay Days inspections.”
Young acknowledged that the council in particular has examined the fire prevention officer’s post before.
“It’s still under negotiation in the contract talks,” he said. “Based on the amount of commercial property we have, we have questioned the need for a full-time inspector.
“We have looked at having parttime inspectors, like some other departments have,” he said. “We also have heard Chief Lyons, when he notes he has no administrative help or assistant. We also can look at having an assistant chief who can do the inspections and other administrative work or fill in on a shift to help deal with overtime. That’s all part of the ongoing talks.”
Both fire and city officials noted that the fire department openings have been there since last year.
“The major reason we have so much overtime is that we’ve had the two openings since last year and we have another,” Lyons said. “If we had filled those openings more quickly, we wouldn’t have the issues.”
Brandon DiMacchia, head of the fire department union, questioned why the move is being made now.
“We know it’s part of the contract discussions,” he said. “Quite frankly, I don’t know why they would do this when the talks are still ongoing. If we wanted to make a change while talks are still going on, they wouldn’t be happy.”
Young contends the old contract, which contained clauses keeping the fire prevention officer at 40 hours, has expired. DiMacchia said since the talks are still ongoing, he shouldn’t say much, but acknowledges he is looking into the move legally.
Lyons said the move – whether temporary or permanent – will put the department behind in its work.
“We’ve had a full-time fire prevention officer since the 1970s,” he said. “The business and new structure inspections are done annually, not to mention the other work like the schools, which has to be done. If we don’t get there, it may go to the state fire marshal’s office, which is more difficult to get done.”