Thursday, September 12, 2002

Chief wants more pay for firefighters

Published in the Current

Scarborough Fire Chief Michael Thurlow last week laid out his plan to increase firefighters’ pay, improve coverage throughout the town and reorganize some of the department’s administrative and training duties.

It is a sweeping plan, which could cost thousands of dollars a year in additional salary and benefits, but Thurlow told the Town Council at its Sept. 4 workshop the town needs it.

Further, he said, it is far cheaper than the alternative: a fire service staffed entirely by full-time firefighters.

“It is inevitable that this community will grow to the extent that we need a full-time department, at some point,” Thurlow said. But in the meantime, there are some changes the Town Council can implement to keep the town’s fire protection level up while still keeping costs at a reasonable level.

Thurlow asked councilors to phase in firefighters’ pay increases for advanced fire and rescue training, pay firefighters for the hours they spend in training and pay increments for people who stay in the department over the long term. Also part of his plan is for additional full-time administrative and regulatory staff to handle the department’s paperwork, supervisory tasks and fire prevention responsibilities.

All firefighters now get paid $10 per hour, a rate Thurlow wants to use as the base rate for basic firefighters.

Thurlow asked the council to increase pay rates 50 cents per hour for each fire training level a firefighter attains, starting Jan. 1.

That could cost as much as $98,000 a year, Thurlow said, though there is no money in this budget for such an expense.

Rather, savings would need to be found in other areas of town spending, according to Town Manager Ron Owens.

Paying firefighters more would help the town retain its fire crews, Thurlow
said. The more on-call firefighters the town has, the longer it can last without a full-time fire service, Thurlow said.

He said the expense of increasing firefighters’ pay pales in comparison to what it would cost to pay full-time firefighters for similar service. “It is a much cheaper alternative to full-time staffing,” he said.

To further streamline department operations, Thurlow wants to add a full-time training coordinator to handle the 8,000 man-hours of training the department conducts each year, a full-time administrative assistant for the
rescue department and a fire prevention officer.

He also wants to add two daytime firefighters, who staff the town’s fire stations from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. each day, to ensure a faster response to fires. In addition to fire coverage, they can be used as shift supervisors.

The fire prevention officer, Thurlow said, could be partially paid for by fees the department now charges developers for reviewing fire safety plans.

That officer would also do fire safety inspections for businesses and visit the town’s schools, especially during October’s Fire Prevention Week, Thurlow said.

He went on to lay the groundwork for a future request for additional full-time staff, saying there may be a need for full-time emergency medical technicians at the stations, to supplement the paramedics now there. Further, he said, there may also be a need to increase firefighter coverage during the evening commute time. Presently, daytime firefighters leave work at 4:30 p.m., handing off coverage to on-call firefighters.

Bad traffic at the Route 22 intersection with Route 114 can keep firefighters from getting to the station quickly, to respond to fires in time, he said.

Thurlow said he expects to need to phase in these changes, to reduce impact on the budget, but said the changes need to happen quickly. “I’m hoping that we can accomplish a lot of it within the next three years,” he said.

Councilor and Finance Committee Chairman Patrick O’Reilly encouraged Thurlow to look at cooperation with neighboring towns for training purposes and staffing. The town has such an agreement with Gorham, in which one Gorham firefighter and fire truck are based at the North Scarborough fire station, which provides fire protection in North Scarborough and South Gorham.

Council Chairman Jeff Messer said he would support a 10 percent annual increase for the fire and rescue budget, with some of that money increasing pay and the rest of it used for additional full-time staff.

Town Manager Ron Owens cautioned Messer not to commit himself before reviewing the needs of the rest of the town’s departments.

O’Reilly said he wanted to know the numbers of people at each training level and longevity step. Thurlow said he would bring that to a follow-up meeting, to happen in October.