Eliminating the reserve firefighter program could cost Payson dearly, says Fire Chief Marty deMasi, who said he was blindsided by the budget committee’s plans to retire the program. Many of the department’s firefighters have graduated from the reserve program, which helps maintain minimum staffing levels when firefighters are on vacation or sick.
The budget committee earlier this month recommended the town drop the program to make sure that it wouldn’t have to offer health care coverage to reserve firefighters who work more than 30 hours a week, a new provision of the federal Affordable Care Act.
Under the Act, towns and businesses with more than 50 full-time workers must provide health insurance benefits to employees who work more than 30 hours a week. Many cities and towns across the country have responded to the upcoming changes by limiting part-time employees’ hours, but the Town of Payson said it would cut the program.
deMasi said this doesn’t make sense since the town can limit the number of hours reserves work. Reserves typically cover full-time sick and vacationing firefighters’ shifts. Very rarely do they fill the fourth slot on a fire truck.
Last year, reserves provided the fourth firefighter on the truck less than 10 times, all at the Main Street station, said deMasi, who recently announced his retirement.
“I believe the fire department can manage the reserve program to stay within the parameters, although doing so will have potential negative impacts,” deMasi wrote Don Engler, deputy town manager and member of the budget committee. “However, those impacts would be minor in comparison to eliminating the program.”
Engler said the budget committee was still looking at the issue, but he remained noncommittal. The town council recently approved a tentative budget that included the cuts, along with the elimination of the town’s fire marshal. The town won’t actually adopt a budget until June.
Ultimately, deMasi said the fate of the reserve program rests with the town council.
The council is also grappling with eliminating Fire Marshal Bob Lockhart’s position to bolster the budget. Although more than 50 town employees make $75,000 or more each year, the council has so far only considered eliminating Lockhart’s job.
Only one councilor, Fred Carpenter, voted against studying the impact of eliminating the fire marshal position and relying on outside contractors to do fire inspections.
deMasi said he is lobbying to keep the “critical” fire marshal position, but he doesn’t know if it will do any good since no one discussed eliminating the reserve program or Lockhart’s position with him in the first place.
Although he has sent the council a memo on the issue, he received no response.
deMasi recently decided to retire early after a 30-plus year career with the PFD.
“I am leaving about a year earlier than originally planned,” he said. “But I am concerned with the way decisions are made, and perhaps the new chief can have more of an impact on what the department and the town needs.”
Currently, the department’s 10 reserve firefighters each work an average of 45 hours a month. The average reserve makes $10 an hour while the starting salary for a firefighter/EMT is $12 an hour, not including benefits.
The department uses reserves 70 percent of the time to cover shifts for the full-time firefighters. Otherwise, they provide extra manpower for special events like the Demolition Derby or the Fourth of July.
“I think the reserves program has great value,” deMasi said.
The town is considering moving $65,000 budgeted for the reserve program to the overtime budget so full-time firefighters could cover open shifts. Town councilors told the Roundup that deMasi had initially asked for nearly $100,000 for the reserve program in the upcoming fiscal year.
deMasi noted that the cut might not save any money, since the overtime rate for career firefighters is on average twice as much as paying a reserve firefighter to cover a shift.
“That will mean that the funds will cover fewer shifts,” he said.
Additional impacts of cutting the reserve program include:
• Potential station closures when no full-time firefighters are available.
• Firefighters working upward of 72-hour shifts.
• A higher insurance rating, with reserve firefighters currently counting as a percentage of a full-time firefighter.
• Recruitment may suffer, since in the last 30 years all but 10 of the full-time firefighters hired worked first as reserves.
• Reduced morale as a result of asking the full-time firefighters to take on more.
• Fewer firefighters available for call backs to emergencies.
“While we do not depend solely on reserve firefighters for call backs, they are an important resource,” said deMasi.
In addition, the department may have to let go the six firefighters recently hired through the federal SAFER grant. The grant covers their salaries for three years. The town may have to lay them off after the grant runs out, said deMasi.
“Having no reserve firefighters to compensate for this loss will severely impact our staffing situation,” he said. “The value of the reserve program goes far beyond what it costs the town.”