Overtime Problems Plague Massachusetts Department

Firefighter overtime is projected to be gone by Feb. 15, creating the possibility for the first time in nearly two decades that at times all three suburban stations will be closed, leaving Central Station on School Street responsible for the entire city.

The announcement, along with a request for supplemental funding, came in a memo from Chief Barry McKay to Mayor Carolyn Kirk.

McKay warned in the memo that "major winter storms" or "major fires" could require the use of what little overtime is available and leave the department with no overtime even earlier than Feb. 15.

McKay said yesterday that the last time the city closed all the outlying stations was in 1991 or 1992.

"It was dangerous then, and it's dangerous now," he said.

McKay's memo was released yesterday in Kirk's biweekly package to the City Council, which holds its first working meeting of the new term Tuesday.

According to McKay's report, calling back all available firefighters - 68 from a force of 75 - to deal with the Lorraine Apartments fire for five days last month took $26,801 from the already depleted overtime fund.

The Lorraine fire advanced the exhaustion date by weeks.

The overtime crisis had been seen coming as early as last June, when the council appropriated the $400,000 in firefighter overtime sought by Mayor John Bell. That amount was $100,000 less than McKay had sought.

McKay warned then overtime would be gone by March or April.

In a memo to the council, Kirk said she would ask McKay for "alternative recommendations."

She told the Times she is awaiting a report from Chief Financial Officer Anna Tenaglia on the city's overall spending against budgeted funds before deciding how to respond to the possibility of relying on fewer fire and ambulance resources than at any time this decade.

Kirk said she expected Tenaglia's report within days.

In her inaugural address Tuesday, Kirk revealed that because of dysfunctional financial software, Tenaglia has been unable to generate hard information of spending against budget.

Council President Bruce Tobey could not be reached, but Jason Grow, chairman of the council's Budget and Finance Committee, said, "We knew (the exhaustion of overtime) was possible. The ball's in (Kirk's) court."

It was Tobey who sponsored the order for biweekly reports on firefighter overtime last fall after McKay first revealed overtime was being used faster than expected and announced he was abandoning a commitment to keep all four stations open all the time.

McKay last September announced that his department was eating up overtime more rapidly than he had anticipated.

At the time, he said he was ending the practice of staffing all stations - headquarters as well as the substations in West Gloucester, Magnolia and Bay View - to stretch the spending through the winter.

An additional $57,000 was appropriated for firefighter overtime in October. The overtime fund is used to staff up for emergencies such as the Lorraine fire and two smaller and less expensive fires earlier in December and fill vacancies in the assignment roster created by illness or vacations.

By contract, the department is obligated to schedule 18 firefighters on each shift. When the duty roster falls to 16 and 15, the contract requires the closing of the Magnolia station.

At 14 and 13, Bay View and Magnolia must close, and below that number, West Gloucester also must be closed, leaving open only Central Station.

On two occasions recently, overtime was needed to keep the roster at 13 to cover the city with West Gloucester and Central stations.

Republished with permission from The Gloucester Daily Times