SOUTHINGTON — Overtime costs for firefighters continue to drop according to Fire Department officials due to a combination of additional manpower and organizational changes.
Two years ago, overtime pay totaled more than $900,000. For the fiscal year that ended Tuesday, the department spent just over $500,000.
Department leaders credit new procedures and the addition of two new firefighters hired last year. Firefighters union president Glenn Dube said there was also a retirement spike two years ago that drove up the need for overtime.
Members of the Board of Fire Commissioners said the most common cause of overtime are call backs when firefighters who aren’t on duty are called in to take the place of a firefighter out sick or on vacation. When called back, firefighters are paid time and a half.
“The chief (Richard Butler) has done a good job on the reduction of call backs,” said Nathan Wilson, fire board chairman.
Butler was hired in 2018 and said one of his charges was to reduce ballooning overtime costs.
“I think it was kind of a free-for-all. The chief has locked that down,” Wilson said.
Dube said about a third of the department retired shortly before Butler’s hiring. That left a department that he describes as short staffed even more strapped for resources.
“Just about the third of the department over the course of 20 to 22 months retired,” Dube said. “You’ve got to have guys to climb on firetrucks when people call 911.”
While call backs have been reduced, Dube said that has led to some fire trucks going out with only two firefighters rather than the preferred three. That can mean a shift of firefighters is six rather than seven. It’s particularly common during summer months where many firefighters take vacation.
“This is the first time we’ve been at 7 on my shift in almost a month,” Dube said Tuesday afternoon.
He said he understands the financial limitations of taxpayers but said the reduced call backs “impacts our operations, there’s no way around that.”
Butler said the two new firefighters were added to address the need to call back off-duty firefighters. The additional firefighters cost more than $200,000 in salary and benefits but that’s offset by the savings in overtime as well as other reductions.
He’s also used more mutual aid from other towns as well as volunteers to cover positions when crews are dispatched. The Southington department has both career and volunteer firefighters.
Less overtime reduced firefighters’ take-home pay, but Butler said union members have accepted the change.
“They understood it wasn’t sustainable at those numbers,” he said.
Butler expects the reduction in overtime to have bottomed out unless more firefighters are added to the department.