Over Time Costs, Sick Time Force Boston Station Closings

Three Boston fire companies were shut down yesterday as city officials struggled with soaring overtime costs to cover firefighters calling in sick under a generous new contract.

Facing staffing shortages, the city was forced to temporarily pull engines out of commission in Hyde Park and Dorchester and shutter a South End station.

Firefighter union officials ripped Mayor Thomas M. Menino for putting ``the public in jeopardy.''

But an angry Menino shot back: ``I would never, ever compromise public safety. It's abuse of sick leave. Why is the union out there making an issue out of this?''

``The city cannot afford to be spending unnecessary overtime,'' said Denis DiMarzio, the city's chief operating officer, noting about 130 firefighters called in sick over the three-day July 4 weekend.

Administration officials said firefighters are calling in sick when they want a day off. Union officials said the sick days are legitimate and the administration underestimated the cost of the new contract provision.

Following bitter negotiations two years ago, Menino - despite criticism the pact was too generous - granted firefighters a contract providing paid sick days for the first time in the department's history.

Fire companies are closed regularly for training and maintenance. But yesterday was the first day Fire Commissioner Paul Christian closed companies for budget reasons.

Christian denied the day-long closures put anyone at risk, calling the notion ``totally irresponsible.''

The temporary shutdowns - which lasted from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. - nevertheless left neighborhood residents worried about their safety.

``It's gambling,'' said Michael Samuelian, treasurer of the Blackstone/Franklin Square Neighborhood Association, charging the mayor with ``playing politics with our safety.''

But Menino said, ``We have a budget crisis. We're doing the best we can with what we have.''

The new ``brownout policy'' went into effect Monday. It allows Christian to close up to four of the city's 57 fire companies on any day when he doesn't have the staff to man every station in the city.

The closings are intended to trim the department's ballooning overtime costs, which rose from $9.5 million in fiscal 2001 to $14 million in fiscal 2003, which ended June 30. The overtime bills are at the center of an ongoing dispute between the fire department and its union over a 2-year-old sick leave policy.

Nick DiMarino, president of Firefighters Local 718, said the firehouse closings would ``double the response time'' to emergencies. Adding to the dilemma, a second engine company in the South End was also closed yesterday for training.

Samuelian, who learned that Engine Company 3 on Harrison Avenue was out of commission when he drove past and saw the ``Closed'' sign, said Menino should find other ways to balance the city's budget.

``Is the mayor willing to give up a day of salary once a week?'' he asked. ``I personally wouldn't mind paying a few extra dollars in taxes every year just to make sure my house doesn't burn down.''

Christian yesterday also shut Engine Company 24 in Dorchester and Engine Company 48 in Hyde Park, where the mayor lives. Christian said the companies were picked at random from the units that generally perform backup duties.

But City Council President Michael Flaherty said, ``Boston firefighters are already spread thin protecting not only our own residents but residents of nearby communities.''

Flaherty noted that Engine Company 3's backup duties took them to Medford on Tuesday night in an attempt to rescue an autistic boy who drowned in a pool. Engine 3 backs up a company in Charlestown that also spent Tuesday night in Medford, requiring another Boston company to backup Charlestown.

``The idea that a fire in Charlestown would have to be responded to by a station in Dorchester or the Back Bay is frightening,'' he said.