LONDONDERRY — As Londonderry’s spending freeze continues, fire officials are growing increasingly concerned over the department’s staffing situation.
During the public comment portion of Monday night’s town council meeting, Fire Chief Darren O’Brien said the department had recently been forced to drop its shift staffing levels from 10 firefighters per shift down to nine per shift.
“We’re just trying to do the best we can right now,” O’Brien told councilors. “And since we’re still in a spending freeze, this appears to be the only way we can work within our operating budget.”
Bo Butler, president of the local firefighters’ union, said the staffing situation is “deeply concerning and frustrating.”
“It still blows my mind that the town can’t maintain a staffing level of 10,” Butler said. “My greatest concern is the safety of our firefighters and the safety of the town. We’re a busy community and right now, we’re doing it with one less man than we had before.”
As the result of the staffing reduction, Butler said the fire department has been relying more and more on mutual aid from other nearby communities, though he’d prefer it to be the other way around.
Butler said Chief O’Brien has been working with the firefighters’ union in hopes of “sitting down and developing a game plan that’s not only good for the taxpayers, but good for the safety of the (union) members.”
In instances where the Londonderry Fire Department receives concurrent emergency calls, Butler said it’s been difficult, if not impossible in some cases, to send staff to multiple locations at the same time.
“Which means if you call us for an emergency, you might find that a company from another town is the one coming to your house,” he told the council. “With our current staffing, we can’t meet the calls we need to.”
Councilor Joe Green agreed the situation was worrisome.
“The money we would have made on mutual aid (sent to other towns) is being lost to us,” Green said. “So what we’re doing is increasing the risk for the people being called into service while also decreasing potential revenues.”
Council Chairman Tom Dolan suggested the council consider scheduling a public hearing to give the community the chance to come in and share their thoughts.
Councilor John Farrell noted, however, that some changes might have to wait until the next budget season.
“This isn’t new news,” Farrell said. “Are we talking about increasing staff at the fire department next year?”
Dolan said he felt it was “important we’re made fully aware of what the consequences (of budgeting changes) are.”
Butler said he, too felt it was important to bring the matter before the public. “This isn’t about money,” he said. “ I think our taxpayers have the right to know that their services have changed.”
The council agreed to address the matter further at an upcoming meeting.
In February, Town Manager Kevin Smith implemented a town-wide spending freeze in hopes of putting the town back in the black in the wake of last winter’s costly snow removal and rising costs in municipal health care and legal fees. According to Smith, the freeze on all nonessential town spending will remain in place through the end of June, when the current fiscal year ends.
The subject of fire staffing has been a pressing issue in Londonderry for quite some time. During budget discussionsin January, town officials had pondered the possibility of adding more firefighters or planning for more overtime in the new fiscal year but that ultimately didn’t happen.
In March, Smith said the fire department had already gone $15,000 over its budget for overtime expenses, though the overall fire budget itself was less than one percent over last year’s budget for that month.