2013-03-29 / Community News

Public safety staffing levels a concern

By Michael Kelley Staff Writer

Over the past 30 years, the Scarborough Fire Department has been responding to more and more calls with fewer and fewer firefighters and emergency medical professionals on staff.

According to data from Scarborough Fire Chief Michael Thurlow, in 1980, the department’s 318 call members responded to 1,048 calls for service.

By 2000, the staff had reduced to 185 for 2,494 calls. In 2012, the department’s 116 call members responded to 3,874 calls for service. Thurlow expects the call number to increase to 4,944 by 2017 and 8,054, or 22 calls a day, by 2027.

Thurlow said it will be difficult to meet the increased need for service with the department’s current staffing levels. At the department’s budget review before the Town Council’s finance committee Tuesday, March 26, Thurlow said the department is short 12 full-time personnel and a total of 582 hours a week of per-diem coverage.

To help reverse the trend, Thurlow has requested funding to hire four new fulltime personnel. The new hires will not be assigned to a particular fire house or apparatus, but rather be used to fill vacant shifts due to vacation, holiday, sick or time instead of paying existing officers overtime to cover the gaps.

Projected savings in overtime costs will offset more than 60 percent of the $241,947 cost for the new positions. If the request goes through it will be the first time additional staffing was funded through the departmental budget in four years.

Aside from the new fire personnel, Thurlow has also proposed adding a commercial code enforcement officer/fire inspector to share with the town’s Planning Department, which also went through a departmental review at the meeting.

The goal, he said, is to improve efficiency in application and permitting in commercial development and fire inspection.

In total, Thurlow presented a $3.91 million budget that increased expenditures by $179,022, or 4.79 percent. Included in the budget was a $199,953 increase in personnel and benefit costs, a $7,803 increase in vehicle and building maintenance and service contracts, as well as a $15,635 reduction in fuel costs and a $13,099 reduction in utility costs.

The fuel cost reduction is a result of the department reducing the amount of gallons used, as well as using smaller apparatuses to respond to calls that don’t need full engines or pumpers.

After going through the FY 2014 budget and staffing needs of the department, Thurlow presented his capital equipment purchase requests.

Among the $306,000 in requests is $25,000 for a used pickup truck to replace a 15-year-old model; $22,500 to finish the narrowband radio/municipal fire alarm upgrade; $28,000 for two thermal imaging cameras; $35,000 for maintenance on Engine 4, which is housed at the Pine Point Fire Station; $25,000 to replace the municipal holding tank in the Stonebrook neighborhood.

The capital equipment purchase request also includes $170,500 for a new rescue unit. That cost will be funded by rescue fee reserve funds.

While the fire department deals with getting staffing back to more appropriate levels, Police Chief Robert Moulton has also taken a look at staffing needs in his department.

Of particular concern, Moulton said is finding people to work for the department part time.

“We are finding it more and more difficult,” Moulton said of filing part-time positions.

Because of this Moulton reduced the part-time pay budget for Pine Point Beach by $2,174 and totally eliminated the parttime pay portion of the dispatch budget because right now all the dispatchers are full-time employees. Doing so, he said, will help the department fund the salary of a new dispatcher.

Overall, Moulton presented a spending plan that totals $5.23 million, a $164,685, or 3.2 percent increase over the current budget. The budget includes a $17,200 reduction in fuel costs, an $11,000 increase for the cost of new police vehicles, $65,053 increase in patrol pay and a $45,047 increase for pensions.

That is something that finance committee member Ed Blaise said the council should look into in the future.

“I honestly believe this is one area we need to get into if we are going to reduce expenditures in town. We need to look at insurance costs and pension costs in departments throughout town,” he said.

“We spend a lot of money on health care costs, pension costs and benefits. There may be an opportunity there for us to save money by having the employees pay more,” he added.

After going through his budget lineby line, Moulton overviewed his capital equipment requests. The requests, which total $132,300, include $20,000 for a used unmarked police cruiser; $19,800 for new ballistic vests for the tactical team and $72,500 for fire alarm digitizers that monitor fire alarms in town-owned buildings.

The capital purchase requests also includes $20,000 for cruiser equipment to replace equipment that fit in the Ford Crown Victoria, a model Scarborough has used for 16 years that is not being made anymore.

Moulton said a final decision has not been made in regards to which type of vehicle will replace the Crown Victorias. Last year, the department purchased three different models to test out. The jury is still out as far as which one will best suit the department.

“Some of the officers are split as far as which one they like,” Moulton said. “The maintenance costs to this point has not been much different.”

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