Vacancies hit Fire Department

While many city departments are looking to cut positions, the New Haven Fire Department is planning to hire up to 50 new members.

Though the economic recession has not forced the city’s fire department to cut jobs, up to 72 positions are currently vacant across the department’s ranks because of retirements and injuries, Chief Administrative Officer Robert Smuts ’01 said. But not everyone at City Hall and the department agrees on the extent to which an increase of firefighters is needed.

Between 40 and 50 of these vacancies will be filled when the department starts looking for applicants at the end of November, Smuts said. He added that the new firefighters will be hired early next year after a lengthy process of civil service tests, hiring exams and promotional tests within the department.

“[We] do not fill vacancies as they come up, [we] fill them in big chunks,” Smuts said. “This is something that happens periodically in the fire department.”

Smuts added that the day-to-day staffing and performance of the department have not been affected by the vacancies because the firefighters’ union contract stipulates that 73 active firefighters must be on duty at all times. This number, he said, includes two battalion chiefs, one deputy chief and the staff who operate the department’s 10 fire engines, four ladder trucks, two squad engines and two advanced life support units. In total, the department currently has 366 members listed in its ranks, some of whom can be brought in to work if needed. During emergencies such as Hurricane Irene, Smuts said, the department will occasionally bring in more firefighters from its standby ranks to deal with power outages and downed trees.

“Tonight at 2 a.m., 73 people will be on duty,” Smuts said. “Three months from now, at whatever time you care to pick, 73 people will still be on duty. That’s our staffing plan.”

Two members of the department said that a larger number of staff members would help to alleviate the department’s daily workload. Although Smuts said he does not expect the department to grow beyond what is needed to fill vacancies in the near future, two members of the department expressed expectations for a bigger staff as New Haven continues to grow.

Lt. Frank Ricci, vice president of the firefighters’ union, said the department’s staff has been reduced by 28.3 percent over the last 30 years — from 501 in 1980 to 366 today. Before the minimum staffing requirement, Ricci said, staffing in the department resembled a game of “firehouse Russian roulette,” in which the city would regularly take a company off duty in a process known as “brownouts.” The city would not staff a fire engine when a vacancy occurred and personnel would be moved from station to station, leaving one engine without personnel to operate it.

“Our staffing has been consistently 73 firefighters on duty at any given time over the past five years,” Ricci said. “In order to achieve that number, the fire department agreed in 2006 that firefighters would be willing to give up time and a half-pay to ensure the safety of the citizens.”

The union contract requires that the city pay normal wages for the first 212 hours a firefighter works in a 28-day period. The calculation for when to hire is not based on a budget number, Smuts said, adding that the city’s target number of firefighters is linked to when hires start exceeding the 212-hour period. After this point, he said, staffers start to get burned out by having to work overtime, which is what happened to the department’s formerly short-staffed paramedics division. Two classes of about six or seven paramedics each were hired over the past few years to fix this problem, Smuts said, producing a current total of about 20 paramedics on staff.

“The department is always moving, but hiring a new class would take some of the burden off,” Ricci said.

The Fire Marshal’s Office — whose five marshals are responsible for making sure buildings in New Haven conform to fire safety codes — is also looking to expand in the near future, said Deputy Fire Marshal Faustino Lopez. The office had some issues replacing three members who retired recently, Lopez said, adding that replacements were hired from other parts of the department and provided ample staffing. Although the 11 positions in the Fire Marshal’s Office may seem like a small number of staff for a city as large as New Haven, Lopez added, current inspectors often do three times the work of an average fire marshal around the country.

Lopez said he predicts a greater number of staff members in the future as the city continues to expand. In particular, construction projects involving 360 State St., Yale’s two new residential colleges, Gateway College and buildings on Whitney Avenue will require the department to train more recruits for fire-inspection certification, he said.

“Even though we are in a bit of a recession, people are still building,” Lopez said.

The New Haven Fire Department was established in 1862.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly characterized Lt. Frank Ricci’s statements about fire department staffing. “Brownouts” were common occurrences only before 2006, when a minimum staffing requirement was instituted.

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