Steamboat firefighter schedule changes follow seasonal demand

Staffing reductions not to affect response times

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— Steamboat Springs Fire Rescue officials said they don’t think reduced seasonal staffing will affect response times or the department’s ability to respond to multiple emergencies.

The Steamboat Springs City Council voted, 5-2, last week to approve the seasonal staffing plan anticipated to save $37,000 in overtime annually, staring in April. It will reduce eight-person shifts to seven-person shifts during the off-peak months of April, May, October and November.

“We came up with that proposal knowing our call volume is down that time of year,” Acting Deputy Fire Chief Mel Stewart said. “We feel comfortable that we could adequately respond to emergencies. We’ll continue evaluating it.”

Acting Public Safety Director Joel Rae said the fire department actually has staffed its three shifts with seven firefighters since Nov. 1 because of the departure of three employees in 2011.

The City Council identified “all things fire” as a priority this year, and the city hired a consultant to examine the structure of the fire department and to recommend possible changes.

Rae and Stewart responded to the consultant’s report with one of their own at the Feb. 7 City Council meeting. Rae said their in-house report was supported by all Steamboat Springs Fire Rescue personnel. Their report proposed the seasonal staffing plan. During the presentation to the council, Rae and Stewart said the fire department was asked to provide savings.

According to budget information provided by the city, the $37,000 in overtime savings this year would reduce the fire department’s 2012 overtime budget of more than $260,000 by only 14 percent.

The consultant’s report indicated that the city could save about $252,000 annually by instituting 12-hour shifts and using more part-time staff.

Steamboat Springs Fire Rescue uses the “Kelly shift,” in which firefighters work three 24-hour shifts in a six-day period and then have four days off. The shift equates to 2,912 hours per year for every full-time firefighter — 2,756 regular hours and 156 hours of scheduled overtime. They also earn unscheduled overtime.

Because they work 24-hour shifts, firefighters get paid even when they’re not responding to calls, and therefore their hourly wages are less. If they worked a more traditional schedule — 2,080 hours, a typical 40-hour per week schedule — Stewart said it actually would cost the city more.

“If we went to the non-24-hour-shift to pay the same amount, we would have to raise pay,” he said. “It really didn’t make sense.”

Stewart added that using part-time firefighters, some of whom make a higher hourly wage than full-time firefighters, doesn’t always result in savings.

To reduce staffing to seven-person shifts during lower-demand months, the department wouldn’t fill time that one firefighter per shift takes off for vacation, illness or training. Even though it is moving to that staffing level in about six weeks, Rae said the department has hired two people to fill the three vacant positions and was close to hiring a third. They will start in March.

During Tuesday’s City Council meeting, council member Sonja Macys, who with council member Kenny Reisman opposed the motion to support the seasonal staffing plan, said she didn’t understand why cuts were necessary.

“It seems to me like we authorized a budget, which is a policy move, and these guys are operating within that budget,” Macys said. “So I’m still having a hard time understanding why we’ve asked them to continue to cut from an approved budget.”

Rae and Stewart said reducing their budget was a way to do what so many other departments also have done — identify possible savings for the city.

City Manager Jon Roberts said he was comfortable with the recommendation to reduce staff during off-peak months.

“I’m relying on both Joel and Mel, their professional recommendation that they can adequately respond to any emergency with the seasonally adjusted staffing levels,” he said. “Again, I have to rely on the experts to make that determination.”

Stewart said the reduced seasonal staffing can be re-evaluated if issues arise.

“If we see it’s not working, we’ll go back and look at it again,” he said.

Roberts told the City Council on Tuesday that there would be a process for fire employees to approach the city to demonstrate that a reduction in hours would cause a hardship on their families, and that they could be given additional shifts. The city did something similar when it mandated furloughs for most city employees in 2009.

To reach Jack Weinstein, call 970-871-4203 or email jweinstein@SteamboatToday.com

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