by William Dowd 10/14/12
If there’s a sacred cow in municipal public service today, it has to be public safety. Even before 9/11, there was a healthy respect - even admiration - for the police officers and firefighters who put themselves in harms way for our protection. After 9/11, and all those heart wrenching images of those who selflessly rushed to save the many people trapped in the Towers and never came back, it’s practically blasphemy to even question how much these dedicated public servants should be paid.
But just because it is hard, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ask.
Holliston is very fortunate to have a call fire department. We spend significantly less to provide fire protection here than in surrounding towns with full time forces, and I don’t know anyone who is not grateful for that. Standing full time firefighting departments are very expensive, and very underutilized. It may be uncomfortable to point this out, but firefighters working in a full-time fire department are the last profession that still gets paid to sleep. The theory is that in return for being ready to put their lives in danger at a moments notice, it’s fair to compensate them during overnight shifts when they are sleeping. But even these ideas are slowly being challenged.
When our house is on fire, we want dozens of firefighters with the best equipment on the scene as quickly as possible, and we don’t really think about how much that costs. The truth is that advances in building codes and technology have significantly reduced the number of, and severity of structural fires. It’s ironic that many towns built up sizable standing firefighter forces just as all these advances were bearing fruit in call rates. Holliston’s call firefighting force is not some municipal anomaly that leaves residents at risks not faced by those in surrounding towns with full time forces. Holliston’s fire department, for the most part, is exactly what many communities need, and how these services should be delivered.
At the Selectmen’s meeting on October 3, Chief Cassidy made a proposal to increase the monthly stipends that Holliston call firefighters receive. The Firefighter stipend would increase by 81%, Lieutenant by 101%, Captain by 106% and Deputy by 42%. In addition, on top of a doubling of weekend duty stipends back in May, the Chief is proposing another 222% increase for the Lieutenant and 50% for the Captain and Deputy. Total cost for the increases: Over $225,000 annually.
These stipends cover the fact that these folks carry a pager 24 hours a day, 365 days a year that could require their response at any time. The Chief points out that using current stipend amounts and spreading them over 24 hour days, 365 days a year, the firefighters are being paid 57 cents per hour. His proposal was to increase that by 81% to $1.03 per hour. The stipend also covers mandatory training time to ensure that they are all proficient with the most current techniques and equipment. In addition, when they are actually called out, they receive an hourly rate of around $18.
Chief Cassidy supports his proposal with the following points:
1. A prior Board of Selectmen promised to significantly increase Firefighter on-call stipends, but other than a couple of hefty increases in the mid 2000’s the process was stopped short of target when times got bad. In Chief Cassidy’s view, the firefighters have been patient and deserve to get what they were promised. He also thinks that even though the firefighters rejected a stipend increase a couple of year ago in a Prop 2 ½ override, they should not be asked to wait any longer for the promise to be fulfilled.
2. Using the Fire budgets from surrounding towns, the Town pays far less for fire suppression than surrounding towns with full-time forces.
3. Even though he has abandoned the hard link of stipends to health insurance premiums, many firefighters who choose to enroll in the Town’s health insurance plan don’t even cover the employee share of the coverage with current compensation and end up getting a bill from the Town each month.
First, there at least a couple of good lessons here. Elected officials should never make promises that they can’t keep. Unless it can happen during your term, don’t make commitments. And when a grateful community offers to step up to the promise – even in an override – don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.
Second, any increase deserves scrutiny, but the size of these increases makes a thorough review imperative. I’m not sure why the Chief waited until only a few weeks before Town Meeting to make his proposal, but here are the questions that MUST be answered before this goes any further:
1. What are the EXACT pay practices of other call fire departments. We need hard data on stipends, hourly rates, health insurance, etc. before we can tell if our call firefighters aren’t getting a fair deal. It’s not that we should be controlled by this data, but today, pay decisions are and should be considered in the context of what others with the same job are paying. The fact the other towns are hugely overpaying for fire suppression with full time forces is practically irrelevant. This data on specific pay practices by department is readily available, but so far, unseen. And expressing the stipend as a 365/24 hourly rate may make for a good sound bite, but it’s far from the proper foundation. By the way, the now infamous pay study was supposed to include call firefighters. Where is that data?
2. What is the impact of the proposed increase on Pension expense? These employees earn a pension based on their service and pay, and we need to know how much pension expense would increase if these stipend increases are adopted.
3. Why are firefighter stipends voted by the Board of Selectmen and not Town Meeting? Highway, Water, Town Hall employee’ pay rates are all set by an annual article in the Warrant. Why aren’t firefighters done the same way?
4. What is the actual call-out data? How often is there a call to which ALL pager holders are required to respond? Are there ways to put a subset of the force on primary response and the balance on “all hands on deck only” basis? I’ve reviewed months of the Fire Log and the number of events seems very low. The Chief emphasizes how onerous it is to carry the pager – can’t leave Town, have to drive two cars to church and local sporting events, have to drop what you’re doing in your job. Again, I know how important it is to have a big response when you need it, but why are 50 people being placed in constant suspense for a relatively rare event?
On Monday night, October 15, the Selectmen will hold a meeting at the Fire Station with the firefighters. Besides it being another of the Board’s roving meetings to other municipal buildings, the topic of pay will dominate the discussion.
I believe the firefighters deserve an increase in pay. I just don’t know how much it should be, and I’m concerned that emotion and social pressure will win out over facts and data. The Selectmen received the Chief’s proposals very cautiously. I’ve heard that the structure of the proposed pay increases has been revised to compensate more heavily for training, but not the total amount proposed. They should insist on answers to all the questions above before deciding what to approve.
The way this process works is that the Selectmen make the decision on any increase in pay. By the time this gets to Town Meeting, the only issue for voters is whether or not to increase the fire budget to pay for any increase. While we may be able to rely on the FinCom to really insist on strong substantiation, that is not a given either. With so much up in the air regarding employee and benefits, we really need to get this right.