Fire district officials to look into increased overtime costs

Published on Wed, Jul 27, 2011 by Jeremy Schwartz

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Recent increases in overtime pay to firefighters have prompted North Whatcom Fire and Rescue (NWFR) officials to dig deeper into the issue.

Approximately $42,000 of the overtime budget has been paid out over the last five months, assistant chief John Swobody said at NWFR’s July 21 board of fire commissioners’ meeting. In June, the commissioners voted to transfer additional funds into the overtime budget to help pay the increased costs.

“We can’t run negative in the overtime budget,” NWFR fire chief Tom Fields said.

Firefighter training and sick leave have accounted for most of the overtime paid out recently, Fields said. The $42,000 paid out is within $3,000 of the overtime paid in January to June 2009 and 2010, but the majority of those hours were planned “Kelly” days, which are days off that bring a firefighter’s workweek down to a normal number of hours.

At the fire district’s June 16 board meeting, fire commissioner Bill Salter said he was not happy with the amount of sick leave that has been taken from January to June 2011. Swobody and Fields said they would have a breakdown of how many of each kind of overtime hours had been used prepared for the August 18 meeting. The commissioners made clear they were not accusing any firefighters of abusing sick leave.

“The only way we can really tell is track it for some time,” fire commissioner Rich Bosman said.

Swobody said another recent drain on the overtime budget has been callbacks, when off-duty firefighters are called in to man a fire station when the station’s on-duty personnel are at a fire. A June 2 fire in Custer kept NWFR, Fire District 4 and District 7 firefighters on the scene for several hours, forcing firefighters to be called back to at least one NWFR station.

The fire began as smoldering hay at Ed Pomeroy’s dairy farm on Willeys Lake Road but eventually gutted the building. No firefighters were seriously injured, but fire crews stayed on scene from about 3 a.m. until well into the afternoon.
“We spent six hours dragging hay out of the building, then it blew up,” Fields said.

In addition to increased callback hours, Fields said the district has seen a general increase in emergency calls lately, with crews fielding an average of five to 10 calls per day. The Bellingham Fire Department’s overtime budget has also been stressed recently, he added.