SOUTHINGTON — Two new firefighters funded in the upcoming budget will be the first positions added to the department in more than 10 years.
Board of Fire Commission members said the department needs more career firefighters to reduce response times and cut overtime costs.
“It’s a positive direction, not just for the Fire Department but for the whole town,” said Nathan Wilson, fire board chairman.
On Monday night, the Town Council approved $140,000 to fund the two positions in the upcoming fiscal year.
Michael Bunko, a fire board member and former chairman, said the combination career and volunteer department is understaffed, partly because of the national decline in volunteer firefighters.
“We are understaffed. That’s no secret, that’s no surprise. The data has shown that,” he said.
The department got a new chief last year, Richard Butler, after more than a year without a permanent leader.
Wilson said under Butler the department was able to reduce overtime costs by several hundred thousand dollars. Butler asked for $500,000 in overtime funding for the upcoming fiscal year, nearly half of the $900,000 spent in the previous fiscal year.
“The goal here was to bring in two (firefighters) to get more manpower in there to help overtime. Some of the biggest issues we have is someone sick or injured,” Wilson said. “(Additional firefighters) give us a little more flexibility there.”
During budget talks on Monday, councilors discussed whether to only fund one new position.
Democrats John Barry and Dawn Miceli argued in support for the reduction. Miceli said that she didn’t want to just “throw more paid people at the department” and wanted fire officials to better use volunteers. She also questioned whether hiring more career firefighters would greatly affect overtime costs.
“If I’ve learned anything on this council, it’s to be leery of what the savings are going to be,” Miceli said.
The unsuccessful motion frustrated Republican William Dziedzic, who supported the recommendation from the fire board.
“We give no deference to the professionals, the people who do this for a living,” he said.
Bunko said the commission arrived at the need for six firefighters based on national response times.
Requests for additional firefighters were repeatedly denied in previous years. The department was able to increase the number of firefighters on the street several years ago by hiring a civilian inspector to replace a firefighter who had the job.
The department has 32 career positions.