As you are aware, during the recession the city was forced to lay off 11 firefighters to balance the city budget in 2014. We protected public safety from budget cuts as long as possible, but there came the time when police and fire were the only place left to make cuts.
That left us with 13 firefighters per shift, the fewest daily firefighters that the city has had in decades. We shifted to a First Emergency First profile, which changed the way that we respond to calls for service and added some flexibility to how we respond to calls with the manpower available.
Both the City and the fire union agreed that this was not the preferred way to operate long term. Over the past year, we have collectively looked for a way to add additional firefighters without blowing up the budget. In the past, we would add to the public safety budget while cutting elsewhere, which meant we weren’t taking care of our infrastructure (including street paving) and we started deferring maintenance on city owned buildings. That is not a sustainable model for running public safety or running the city.
As I’ve discussed here extensively, I’m working long term to improve and diversify our tax base to raise enough revenues to complete all city services on a sustainable basis.
The fire union brought a new concept to the table over the past couple months that spawned additional conversation that has now resulted in a new plan. The plan was adopted unanimously by the fire union a couple weeks ago and unanimously by City Council this past Tuesday.
Under the new plan, the Fire Union and the City will create a new lower paid EMT/Firefighter position. The new classification will save the city between $15-25,000 per year over the current Paramedic/Firefighters.
With the new classification available, the City would apply for fire grants that would pay for 12 of the new EMT positions for the next two years. That would allow us to go from 13 to 16 firefighters per shift when implemented. We should hear whether we will receive the grant over the next few months and could implement these new positions sometime in the third quarter of this year. Obviously if the grant is denied, this piece doesn’t come to pass.
We currently have 25 firefighters that are eligible for retirement. Although we don’t know how fast each of those firefighters will retire, what we intend to do is to replace each retiring paramedic with an EMT until the paramedic/EMT ratio is about 60% paramedics and 40% EMTs. Using the math above, for every 3 paramedics that retire, the City would be able to add 4 EMTs for the same salary. We will use this structure to continue to add new fire staff within the budget.
To further supplement fire staffing during the transition, the City will, as the budget allows, add 6 additional EMT positions to the current staff.
When fully implemented, and assuming the grant is received, we should be able over the next several years to raise daily fire staffing from 13 per day to 19 per day while maintaining the budget near 2016 expenditures.
The exact cost of this plan and the exact timing cannot be directly calculated because the change in staffing will be dependent on when those 25 eligible firefighters choose to retire.
I’d like to take a moment to thank two groups in this process. First, thanks to the Fire Union for coming to the table and working through difficult issues with an open mind and with the needs of the union, the city and the safety of our residents equally represented in their negotiations. It is genuinely appreciated.
Second, I’d be remiss if I didn’t specifically thank our surrounding jurisdictions for their mutual aid while we have run at less than peak staffing. We always help each other when called, but all of our surrounding jurisdictions have answered the Middletown call for help every time we have asked with professional assistance and the best that they have to offer. It is also genuinely appreciated.
I’ll keep the public apprised of our grant status as we get more information. Have a great week!