Chief: Reserve Firefighters Vital

Marty deMasi
Payson fire chief

Marty deMasi Payson fire chief

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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.

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Marty deMasi Payson fire chief

“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.”

Comments

Barbara Rasmussen 1 year, 6 months ago

I can only wonder why the powers to be in our Town Government would not even notify a Fire Chief that they were considering cutting two critical components of his department. What could possibly be their reasoning for these two decisions? Also what about the higher insurance rating? And then the salary issue. $10.00 an hour as opposed to the higher salaries of full time firefighters covering extra shifts? Do the math and there is no way possible that deleting either the Reserve Program or the Fire Marshal would be saving the town any money. Especially when one considers having to hire outside consultants to do inspections and enforce codes. And when the hours worked by the Reserve Firefighters can be monitored and kept under 30 hrs so no benefits are being paid.

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Jack Babb 1 year, 6 months ago

I recently submitted a comment asking the Town Council to consider other options and maintain the Fire Marshal's position. Now I am asking the Town Council to reconsider eliminating any emergency response personnel. I spent over 28 years in the fire service and, while the pay was not great, I received the satisfaction of having performed services to the communities I've served. I have worked for various fire service agencies from primarily dependent on the reserve program to a primarily full-time fire service agency. In all cases the back-bone of these programs relied on the reserve program for maintaining a service the community might not otherwise receive.

The reserves offer themselves to their community to aid those in need, family, friends, and neighbors. They provide a valuable service, many times with little or no pay, for different community programs, such as town Christmas festivals, etc.

Most of all the reserves are trained and prepared to move into a full-time position, should a position open. Many, if not all, of the current full-time firefighters began their carrers as a reserve.

I do understand that unfunded mandates force financial constraints on the communities but the final outcome should be "What is best for the community?". The emergency response personnel - law, fire, EMS - should be hands off when budget cuts are considered.

Firefighters/Police Officers, Fire Prevention programs, Fire/Police Chiefs, and Administrative personnel are essential components to maintain the community peace of mind.

I again implore the Council to NOT consider cutting the budgets for emergency personnel and maybe explore combining the positions of other departments, i.e.: one secretary for 2 or more departments.

Thank you for your time - Respectfully Jack Babb

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Pat Randall 1 year, 6 months ago

Who on the budget committee or town council is qualified to say what is needed at the fire dept? Evidently no one. They should have done some research, talk with the Fire Marshall and Fire chief before making all thier decisions about where to cut costs. Which of them have ever worked for 72 hr. or even 24hr. shifts without a day off? I doubt any have done 12 hours. Firemen are always ready to go when the bell rings. They don't get to finish eating at times. When back to the station they have to get all thier equipment ready for the next call. Then maybe they get to sit down or go to bed with one ear listening for the next bell to ring.

Study about who is really needed for the town. Fire and Police or hiring more assistants for people that don't do anything anyway. Stop spending money on the event center, fireworks and all the other things that money is wasted on. Sure a few out of towners come see the free things and drive back home for the night. The event center has never made money and never will earn back what has been spent on it.

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don evans 1 year, 6 months ago

Ok, at this point I'll just say I heard this. That Payson will soon create a New position called something like Town Public Safety Services Administrator: This single individual will oversee and manage both the Police department and Fire Department. Effectively doing away with the Two department chief positions, and bringing them under the supervision of the single individual. You can guess the Town's fiscal argument for making such a move. I hope this is not true.

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