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February 22. 2012 12:19PM

Manchester Fire Department to add four fire fighters

MANCHESTER - The city will have four more firefighters to battle blazes after the Board of Mayor and Aldermen voted late Tuesday night to lift the hiring freeze for the fire department.

“It's a start,” Fire Chief James Burkush said Wednesday morning while at the scene of a Somerville Street fire, the second on that street in about 13 hours. “We desperately need some firefighters back.”

While Engine 7, the pumper housed at the Somerville station, was the first on the scene, the $885,000 ladder truck was still back at the firehouse because there are not enough firefighters on duty to staff it, Burkush said. He said the city has five ladder trucks and presently only one is fully staffed.

Burkush expects to bring back four laid-off fire fighters to staff the Somerville Street ladder truck because of the action taken by the aldermanic board.

Aldermen did not appropriate more funding for the fire department, which is down 30 positions - a combination of lay-offs and retirements - from two years ago.

Burkush said savings from a tentative, three-year contract with the Manchester Professional Fire Fighters Association, Local 856, which the board approved last night and which included increases in health insurance costs for firefighters and eliminates almost all overtime pay, should cover the expense.

Ward 6 Alderman Garth Corriveau made the motion to lift the hiring freeze in the fire department and give Burkush the authority to manage his budget, including adding any firefighters. Last week's devastating Eastern Avenue fire, where firefighters rescued seven people from balconies and windows, is in Corriveau's ward.

Mayor Ted Gatsas vetoed the first vote, which was 10 to 4 to pass. Corriveau said aldermen voted to override the veto - 11 to 3 - with Aldermen Jim Roy of Ward 4, William P. Shea of Ward 7 and Phil Greazzo of Ward 10 dissenting.

Gatsas is on vacation and unavailable for the next 10 days, an office spokesman said Wednesday morning. The mayor is the only one in the city who, until last night's vote, could approve the hiring of any employee because of a citywide hiring freeze, Corriveau said.

He expects adding firefighters to the department will become an issue over the next couple of weeks when the mayor unveils his budget.

He said there are expected retirements in the department - three firefighters who are captains and/or lieutenants have turned in their paperwork - and he said there could be another five retirements by September. Corriveau said that could result in the rehiring of the last five laid-off fire fighters. However, he said that would not add any fire fighters to the full complement of 199, just replace those who are leaving.

Corriveau said the aldermen want the firefighters' positions restored, especially because of the union concessions.

“I think the aldermen have a real concern that, for the city of our size, the staffing of firefighters is not at a level that many of us are comfortable with,” he said.

Corriveau said he was against laying off firefighters in the last budget passed but the staffing level hit home with him after seeing the fire fighters battle the four-alarm Eastern Avenue fire in his ward and the bravery they exhibited that night.

“That and the sacrifices they have agreed to in the labor contract, I just thought it was well past time to do everything we could to immediately bring back firefighters,” he said. “There really is no responsibility more important in governing a city than ensuring a city is safe.”


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