For the first time the Watertown Fire Department had to man a shift with only 15 firefighters – the lowest staffing in memory – due to a "critically low" overtime budget, said Fire Chief Mario Orangio.
The 15-man shift went into effect Tuesday night at 6 p.m. This was the first time the Fire Department staffing dipped below 16, Fire Lt. Tom Thibaut, president of the Watertown Firefighters Union, told the Town Council Tuesday night.
The 15-man staffing is a historic low, Orangio confirmed, but it was the level approved by the Town Council when the fiscal 2011 budget was approved. A $237,000 federal stimulus grant has allowed the Fire Department to increase the minimum staff level to 16 for most of the year.
"I did not take making the decision to reduce the minimum to 15 lightly and did so with great trepidation," Orangio said. "My hope is that we can get by at 15 without incident and return the staffing level to 16 as soon as possible."
The department has been left short staffed due to a combination of leaves, retirements and budget constraints, Orangio said.
"As a result of several long term leave situations we have been outpacing our budget for overtime," Orangio said, adding that three firefighters are on military leave, two firefighters are on surgical injury leave and the department had an unexpected retirement.
The estimates for overtime pay made when the fiscal 2011 budget was created last spring did not take into account these absences, Orangio said. On June 14, the Town Council approved a transfer of $4,060 from the Fire Department's fiscal 2011 operating fund to the overtime account.
"Recognizing these issues would have a negative impact on the overtime budget, earlier this month, we transferred some internal [Fire Department] budget amounts to augment the OT budget but with roughly a week and a half to go in the current fiscal year, the budgeted OT amount is critically low," Orangio said.
Town Manager Michael Driscoll told the Town Council Tuesday it may receive another request for a transfer into the fire overtime account before the end of the fiscal year.
, Orangio asked to increase the minimum staffing to 19. He hopes to increase the minimum staffing in coming years, rather than having 15 or 16 become the norm.
"It seems the feeling of some is 'well if you can do it with 18, why not 17?' Then it becomes 'well if 17, why not 16?' and so on we go," Orangio said. "But we are at the breaking point now and we're reaching real critical numbers in terms of the effect reduced staffing has on our ability to continue to provide the services we do as efficiently and safely as we have in the past."