A lack of career firefighters has made it difficult to control overtime costs and could lead to public safety issues, Port Chester's fire chief told trustees Monday night.
With two career firefighters on light duty due to injuries, and a third position that has remained vacant during budget struggles, staffing at Port Chester's firehouses has become dangerously low at times, Chief Kevin McFadden told the board.
"I know the village is in financial straits, I understand that, but it's a public safety matter," he said.
Although centered around a strong volunteer core, the Port Chester Fire Department also depends on career -- or paid -- firefighters to cover the village around-the-clock. Currently, the department has 11 career firefighters, including the two on light duty.
When trustees asked McFadden what an "optimal" number of full-time firefighters would be for the village, McFadden said he'd like to have 15 on staff.
"The staffing level is far below what I feel it should be," McFadden said. "If we get to 12, it would reduce a drastic amount of overtime."
That's because firefighters are called in on overtime to cover for their co-workers during vacation and sick time. Contractual obligations limit management's control over when firefighters take their vacation, and in the summer months the department used 46 percent of its overtime budget, McFadden said.
The department simply doesn't have enough career firefighters to cover vacation and sick leave without putting employees on overtime shifts, the chief said.
In addition to low staffing levels, the fire department took a $75,000 cut to its overtime budget earlier this year, as trustees made cuts to all departments -- including emergency services -- to deliver on a promised tax reduction.
The limited staff and budget leads to potentially dangerous safety situations, according to the fire department. On days when firefighters are out sick or on vacation, there has been only one firefighter manning department headquarters.
"That doesn't make me comfortable at all," Mayor Dennis Pilla said.
McFadden will meet with village leaders privately in executive session to discuss options for "lateral transfers" from other departments, as well as one firefighter who has been on light duty for the past four years.
In the meantime, they'll look ahead to November, when the Board of Trustees will next discuss the issue in public after receiving more information from the fire department.
"If we want our village to grow," McFadden said, "we have to grow with it."
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