By Elizabeth F. McNamara
Interim Fire Chief Kevin Robinson said during the Town Council meeting – after being asked by a resident during public comment – that he was “not a fan” of the 24-hour shifts required under Town Manager Gayle Corrigan’s proposed restructuring plan.
Corrigan presented her plan of action to reduce fire department overtime expenses to the Town Council Monday night, arguing that changing the shift structure from 4 platoons to 3 could allow the department to go from 36 to 30 employees while building in staff to cover for illness or injury.
That 56-hour work week plan is even now before Superior Court Judge Susan McGuirl. The town sued the firefighters in December asking that the court make a declaration that the town has the right to change the structure of the department unilaterally (i.e. without negotiating the change with the firefighters union).
Corrigan wants the council to approve the 56-hour work week but put it on hold until after McGuirl issues a ruling. A hearing is set on the town’s suit Monday, April 23.
Councilman Mark Schwager asked what to expect at that hearing.
Town Solicitor David D’Agostino said the town has asked Judge McGuirl to make a “judgment on the pleadings” – in other words, make a decision using just what is in front of her, with no additional discovery and no addition testimony. The judge could rule on April 23, he said, or she could ask for additional evidence.
“I don’t know if the court is going to be prepared to rule at that time,” D’Agostino said.
Under Corrigan’s proposed three-platoon system, firefighters would work 24 hours on, 48 hours off. The plan calls for 30 firefighters – 8 plus 2 floaters per shift – down from the current 36 firefighters. She recommends laying off the extra 6 firefighters based on seniority. In a four-platoon system, firefighters typically work 10 hours on, 14 hours off, 10 hours on, 24 hours off, 14 hours on, 96 hours off.
She argued that with seven firefighters on “injured on duty” status, it’s like the fire department is already working with only three platoons and she called the proposed reorganization even more of a safety issue than a fiscal one.
After admitting he was not a fan of 24-hour shifts, Chief Robinson said the important thing was to cut down on the number of hours firefighters were working, regardless of the shift structure. In his budget for fiscal year 2019, Robinson has a $1.2 million line item for overtime. Three quarters of a year into fiscal year 2018, $573,000 has been spent on EGFD overtime. Finance Director Linda Dykeman projects the final number to be just under $800,000. Meanwhile, the number of firefighters has remained constant at 36 since 2006, while calls have gone up nearly a third.
Corrigan also outlined possible changes in fire service delivery in the event Judge McGuirl rules against the town, including allowing the chief reduce the number of firefighters on duty overnight, making the department a volunteer service or privatizing the emergency medical rescue service.
Corrigan said she will present a candidate to fill the deputy chief position on an interim basis at the Town Council meeting May 14. No vote on the plan was taken Monday night.