Off-the-job injuries, illnesses causing city fire department overtime

Several years ago when the city of Dunkirk reached a new labor agreement with Local 616 Dunkirk Professional Firefighters Association, the union agreed to the elimination of two positions.

That left the department with 24 members, not counting Fire Chief Keith Ahlstrom. Ahlstrom recently told Common Council’s Finance Committee the department has been running with 21 members as three are out of work due to non work-related injuries and illness.

The chief explained the situation as part of his request to shift funds within the department’s budget. According to the chief’s figures, the rise in overtime is dramatic.

In 2013, there were a total of 612 overtime days, compared to a previous high in the last 35 years in the department of 430 days, a 42 percent increase. Over the last 10 years, there was an average of 230 overtime days.

Ahlstrom told the committee that since Jan. 1 of this year, there have been 87 overtime days, up from 65 in 2013.

“You’re always going to have some overtime, but especially when eliminating the two positions,” he explained. “We went to a point where we knew if anything extraordinary happened it would be hard to cover it without overtime. … Literally, this is going on a year we’ve had this situation where we’ve had people off.”

Councilwoman Stacy Szukala asked if the overtime could be curtailed as negotiations on a new contract will be starting. The current contract expired Dec. 31, 2013.

“The overtime is really based on everybody that was out for 2013 and so far in 2014, is out because of either illness or injury off of the job,” Ahlstrom replied. “None of it is job related, so they are on their personal sick time.”

Councilman Adelino Gonzalez asked if one of the causes of overtime was vacations, but Ahlstrom said the problem was the people being out for extended periods.

“This is going to get better. There are going to be changes, we will become younger,” he stated.

Ahlstrom pointed out there have been no hires in the department in seven years, leaving two members in their 20s and four in their 60s. He added it’s been almost a year for the current overtime situation.

According to Ahlstrom, a savings of some $20,000 per year per new firefighter would be realized after the first year of a retirement.

“In 35 years we’ve only had one other year like this,” he stated. “We’ve had two people out of work on a constant basis since last May, three people are out at times. One is coming back April 1.”

Ahlstrom suggested moving $18,000 from a vehicle line to the overtime account, leaving $7,000 in that line vehicle line. The chief also suggested taking that $7,000 and using it to buy a thermal imaging camera if it’s available later in the year.

“The thermal imaging camera is probably the most important piece of equipment, other than people, that we have,” Ahlstrom explained. “The Beaver Street fire, we had one in use that day and we had crews on three floors, we had two exposures we had to check. … We were literally taking this camera from one spot to another spot. … Each crew that goes in, and three would be norm that we have operating, each crew should have one of these thermal imaging cameras.”

He added the first cameras the department had cost $15,000 but the less expensive meet the need.

“It has no bells and whistles on it, it tells us where the fire is,” he stated.

Discussion turned to when the funds should be transferred, with Ahlstrom saying doing it now would provide a truer picture of the department’s budget.

Councilwoman-at-Large Stephanie Kiyak said it would be proactive and realistic numbers at the beginning are helpful, but Fiscal Affairs Officer Richard Halas said he wanted time to review the information because he’s never done a transfer involving personnel lines.

After Ahlstrom left, Gonzalez made an observation.

“I personally think if we put in the overtime they will use it,” he stated.

A council resolution is needed to make the transfer.

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