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Overtime Might Kill New Hampshire Ambulance

If the fire department can't cut enough money from its overtime budget next year by conducting training during work hours, it will take one of the city's three ambulances out of service on nights and weekends.

Taking the ambulance out of service "would be a last resort," the result of dropping the department's minimum staffing level from 19 firefighters to 18, said fire Chief Dan Andrus.

"That's a significant reduction," he said. "You lose the vehicle, the ability to transport the critical patient."

With one less ambulance, the city would have to rely more heavily upon mutual aid. When the city's three ambulances are out and a fourth call comes in, the city calls in an ambulance from a neighboring town. Andrus said that happened 33 times during a recent three-month period.

And while the fewest calls come in on nights and weekends, the most serious events tend to happen then, Andrus said. "If you're going to have a fatal structure fire, it's probably going to be at night," he said, "when people are sleeping."

The department would take the ambulance out of service to meet directions City Manager Tom Aspell gave Andrus to cut his budget by a certain amount next year.

Andrus first looked at the department's supply accounts and was able to cut about $25,000 from the fire alarm division. But the department had already cut $55,000 in supplies in December to compensate for unexpected overtime costs.

Those cuts can't be sustained a second year in a row, Andrus said. And personnel costs - which make up the vast majority of the department's $10.9 million budget - are inflexible, mandated by union contracts.

That leaves overtime. Even there, however, many of the overtime dollars the department doles out are contractually obligated: the money paid to dispatchers, who for half of the year work 48-hour weeks; the meal hour pay given to employees required to work more than an additional four hours tacked on to their regular shifts; and the cost of re-certifying paramedics, who must complete 48 hours of continuing education every two years.

Those costs, included in the city's contracts with the firefighters and fire officers' unions, are budgeted to run $139,000 next year. Other overtime costs include $65,000 budgeted for callbacks during emergencies.

But of a nearly $500,000 overtime budget, the biggest cost by far is meeting minimum staffing levels. The city sets aside money to pay overtime when the number of employees out sick, on vacation or on leave drops the fire department below minimum staffing levels.

At present, that means fewer than five fire officers and 14 firefighters. Three of those firefighters must also be paramedics: one for each ambulance.

If the department maintains that threshold, it expects to pay out more than $267,000 in overtime next year to meet minimum staffing levels.

To pare those costs, Andrus has proposed cutting overtime in the fire alarm division - meaning if stoplights go out at certain intersections on nights or over the weekend, they'll be left flashing - as well as overtime for paramedic training the department now plans to conduct during work hours.

Depending on how much overtime the department has to use next year to fill holes left by employees sick or on vacation, the city will decide whether the ambulance has to be taken out of service.

"None of us, frankly, want to see that," Andrus said. "I'm absolutely certain, having met with the city manager and mayor, that no one feels" cutting the ambulance is in the city's best interest.

Though the department ran far over its overtime budget this year - it had planned to pay $280,000, but will likelythe year having paid $474,000, Andrus said - an unusual number of employees out on extended leave were largely responsible for that overrun.

The department's overtime budget for next year - $477,000 after cuts - closely mirrors what it spent this year.

And the department has worked with the city's Office of Management and Budget to develop a model that will allow the department to track on a weekly basis the overtime dollars it spends, and how that figure compares with what had been spent during the same time period last year.

Andrus said he intends to manage that budget "so we don't impact service delivery."

The department has cut its overtime costs significantly in the past several years; overtime spending topped $1 million as recently as 2006.


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