When the Pine-Strawberry Fire Board approved creating three new battalion chief positions in October, it scorched a few eyebrows around town.
Just three months earlier, the board had declared that for the department’s fiscal year 2009-2010 budget, there would be no cost of living adjustments or merit raises allowed.
However, with the creation of three new positions, nine internal employees will be promoted and so receive a pay raise. For many residents who attended a Nov. 18 board meeting, this is a direct contradiction to the board’s no raise policy.
“Why the promotions now?” asked Jessica Barnett, former PSF board member in a recent letter. “Let’s continue to run the department as it is until better fiscal times.”
Fire Chief Bob Lashua defended the new positions, saying they were necessary to keep the department running safely and are outlined in the department’s five-year plan.
In 2008, PSF completed a five-year plan that included goals to improve the department’s infrastructure, resources, employee development and outreach in the community. Additionally, one of the goals was to create battalion chief positions by 2010.
The creation of the new positions, which would go into effect April 2010, would assure someone was always available to oversee emergency situations throughout the district, especially when more than one call was going on, Lashua said.
Currently, during a normal shift, a captain, engineer and firefighter are on duty at each fire station. If PSF receives two calls at the same time and both engines are in use, or there is a particularly bad call that requires both engines, an all-call is sent out. An all-call asks any available firefighter to respond to the station to cover in case of another emergency. Additionally, PSF can call on a number of fire departments in the area, like Payson, for assistance, through a mutual aid agreement.
This assures that the district is covered at all times.
In 2007, 26 percent of emergency calls required the department to make an all-call. Additionally, calls overlapped 24 percent of the time.
In 2008, 23 percent of emergency calls required an all-call. So far for 2009, 33 percent of emergency calls required an all-call and 23 percent of calls overlapped.
With all-calls and simultaneous calls increasing, surprisingly, the department’s call volume has not increased. Lashua explained when he is on duty, he is able to move people around during busy call times to cover the district, however, “no one is here 24/7 to move up when I am not here.”
With battalion chiefs, “there would be one person a shift supervising over both stations and district,” he said. “It is a risk management issue. The most important thing is safety and having the district covered.”
With three existing captains promoted to battalion chiefs, three engineers would be promoted to captains. This would leave three open engineer positions.
“Will three new employees be hired in the near future to replace the vacant engineer positions?” Barnett asked.
Lashua said not necessarily.
“We would use the reserves that we have.”
PSF has 10 active reserves that can work a 24-hour shift once a month.
Lashua proposes using them when needed, and pointed out that the number of people working would not increase; their titles would just change.
“We are trying to do this as financially responsible as possible,” he said.
Each of the nine promotions comes with a 5-percent raise, costing the department an extra $22,000 a year.
“This is a promotional raise, not a COLA or merit raise,” he said.
Lashua was quick to point out that so far for the year, payroll is $35,000 less than last year after a business manager retired and a fire mechanic position was eliminated.
With no business manager, some residents have raised concerns that the chief and administrative assistant are overseeing the books.
Dave Prechtel, PSF board chairman, said the decision has so far saved them $60,000 to $70,000 plus benefits and “the chief and his current staff do a most professional job.”
Lashua said there are layers of checks and balance built into their new financial system, including an annual audit and an outside accountant who balances the books once a month. Additionally, only the board can sign checks.
“I think it is a really good checks and balance system,” Lashua said.
After several residents asked the board to reconsider its decision to create the additional battalion chief position last week, the board said it would revisit the issue at the next meeting, which they moved up to Dec. 14 at 6 p.m. The board could decide to reverse its decisions.
“It is up to them what they decided,” Lashua said. “My job is to point out the risks and how we can deal with it.” If the board does rescind its decision, Lashua said he might have to make captains take on more responsibility to cover the district, without the promotional raise.