Conn. city fire chief proposes doubling department staff budget to voters

Fire Chief Tom Casey said there are so few volunteers responding to calls in Preston that, “we’re at the point now where it’s unknown whether anyone is coming”


Claire Bessette
The Day, New London, Conn.

PRESTON, Conn. — Residents will get a chance to ask questions Thursday on the 2019-20 proposed town and school budgets, including an effort by fire Chief Tom Casey to boost paid firefighter and EMT coverage to nearly full-time levels, a move that would nearly double the fire staffing budget.

Casey’s original proposal called for having enough paid staff on duty to provide at least two responders to any incident in town, including a request for $57,814 to hire one full-time firefighter and another $201,000 to hire per diem staff to cover shifts throughout the week. The move would nearly double the proposed fire department budget to $435,087.

But the Board of Finance cut $32,000 from the fire budget in its deliberations on April 24 as part of $75,000 in cuts to the $3.9 million town government budget. The board cut $200,000 from the requested school budget of $12.289 million.

The budget public hearing will be at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the Preston Plains Middle School.

Casey said Wednesday the $32,000 cut represents 148 per diem shifts of 12 hours each for the 2019-20 fiscal year. Town and fire safety officials will have to decide on which days and hours the town will run short of emergency response coverage.

Currently, he said, there are so few volunteers responding to calls in Preston that, “we’re at the point now where it’s unknown whether anyone is coming.”

Casey’s original plan would have had at least two paid firefighters on duty 24 hours a day, in addition to his position as paid fire chief.

Currently, Preston has coverage from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday, with one or two paid firefighters/EMTs, plus one full-time firefighter and the paid chief. On nights and weekends, the town has one part-time per diem firefighter from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. and one firefighter on an evening shift from 4 p.m. to midnight.

The staffing partly is subsidized by the Poquetanuck Ambulance Co., which started contributing $20,000 for per diem firefighter/EMT coverage last July, at the start of the current fiscal year. The ambulance company added $20,000 more in January for another per diem shift and has pledged to boost its contribution to $70,000 in 2019-20.

Poquetanuck Deputy Chief Russ Holland told the finance board in April that the ambulance company anticipates revenue increases through insurance by responding to more calls in town.

Casey said once the budget is approved by residents this spring or summer, he will begin advertising for trained, part-time firefighters and create a schedule — as he now does — for as many shifts as the budget can cover.

Casey currently has a list of 15 people to cover the town’s funded per diem shifts. They provide him with their available dates and times and he works out a schedule each week and month.

Casey said he is not concerned about as issue enveloping other local towns with combined volunteer and per diem paid firefighters. Towns have learned that the federal Fair Labor Act prohibits town employees from “performing volunteer services for the same entity by which they are employed.” A longtime Waterford volunteer firefighter recently filed a claim in that town for financial compensation for all hours he worked as a volunteer firefighter for the past three decades. The firefighter has worked part-time shifts since the early 1980s.

Casey said only three of the current per diem firefighters are volunteer firefighters in Preston, and they generally are not available to respond to calls when they are not on paid duty.

“There are so few volunteers responding, I don’t see it as an issue,” Casey said. “I think volunteering as we know it is changing, and the way we used to think of volunteering is becoming a thing of the past.”

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©2019 The Day (New London, Conn.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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