Mass. fire dept. getting older, recruit class not funded


By NICK KOTSOPOULOS
Telegram & Gazette (Massachusetts)
Copyright 2006 Worcester Telegram & Gazette, Inc.
 
WORCESTER, Mass. — With no funding for a recruit class in City Manager Michael V. O'Brien's fiscal 2007 budget proposal, the Fire Department is facing an aging issue, as it could be almost two years before there is an infusion of younger blood.

Fire Chief Gerard A. Dio said 33 percent of the manpower in his department is age 50 or older, and that figure is expected to increase to 38 percent to 40 percent by next summer.

He said the average age in the Fire Department is currently 44.5 years and it will increase to 45.5 years next year.

The chief added that his department could also be losing more firefighters to retirement. While about 10 retirements are already anticipated during the course of the next fiscal year, Chief Dio said, the figure could be even higher because as many as 35 firefighters are old enough to retire at any time.

He said many firefighters who are eligible to retire waited for the salary arbitration award to come through, and now that it has, it could prompt more firefighters to retire.

"Age is becoming an issue," Chief Dio told the City Council yesterday during its review of the Fire Department budget.

Councilor-at-Large Joseph M. Petty, chairman of the council's Public Safety Committee, said staffing in the Fire Department is no longer a numbers issue. He said the aging of the department is a major concern because it could affect its ability to respond to multiple fires going on at the same time.

"My concern is not only about the future safety of our citizens, but about the firefighters themselves," Mr. Petty said. "We have 138 firefighters who are 50 or older and there are several who are 60 or older. This is an important issue that needs to be addressed."

Mr. O'Brien said public safety remains a top priority of his administration. But he said he was not able to set aside money in his fiscal 2007 budget proposal to fund a firefighter recruit class, in part because of the recent salary arbitration decision awarded to the local firefighters' union.

He said salary provisions of the award that kick in on June 30, 2007 and in fiscal 2008 made it impractical for him to fund a recruit class next year.

"Public safety is a priority of the City Council and this city manager, and I am committed to maintain our staffing levels in fiscal 2007," Mr. O'Brien said. "But I also need to be upfront about the prospects of a recruit class. The fiscal realities of the arbitration award made it difficult for me to commit to a recruit class in my budget. I'm not ruling out the possibility of a class (during next year), but we have to do it within the fiscal realities of the budget."

District 3 Councilor Paul P. Clancy Jr. said the outlying areas of the city could be at greater risk when it comes to response time. He said the difference of just one minute could be significant when a structure is engulfed in flames.

Mr. Clancy pointed out that the manager's budget proposal has eight fewer firefighter positions compared to this year's budget. He said that will leave the Fire Department with 69 positions that are authorized but not funded.

"This is a sobering picture," Mr. Clancy said.

The council gave preliminary approval to the Fire Department fiscal 2007 budget, though it encouraged the administration to do what it can to get a new firefighter recruit class on board during the course of the year.

The council also gave preliminary approval to the Police Department budget. As part of that budget, Mr. O'Brien allocated $215,000 to finance the addition of three command staff to enhance the department's organizational accountability and to oversee the deployment of police officers.

That funding also includes money for a new vehicle impound lot to ease the parking crunch at police headquarters.

In addition, the council approved the budget for the Communications Department, in which the manager recommended $100,000 for the hiring of three new dispatchers to boost the city's public safety communication system.

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