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City calls for fire squad study

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WATERTOWN — At any given time, 15 members of the Watertown Fire Department are on duty at the same time.

And now City Council members want to know if that is an efficient number.

With possible turbulent financial times ahead, Mayor Jeffrey E. Graham and at least two members of the Watertown City Council — Roxanne M. Burns and Stephen A. Jennings — are pushing to complete a study of the fire department that would look at staffing, facilities and equipment.

“We want to know the needs for a city of our size and go from there,” Mr. Jennings said. Councilwoman Teresa R. Macaluso said now is not the time, but one should be done in the future. Councilman Joseph M. Butler Jr. suggested instead conducting a public safety study — including both the fire and police departments — to see if staffing is at the right levels.

The subject may come up at the first budget session. Council members plan to talk about looking at a five-year budget plan when they meet at 6 p.m. on May 12.

The last fire department study was completed in 2002. The City Council decided then to keep staffing numbers the same.

Last week, City Manager Sharon A. Addison released a proposed $39.9 million budget that carries a hefty 23.6 percent tax levy increase and a 22 percent tax rate increase.

A fire department study would not affect the proposed budget. Council members have indicated they want to look at long-term changes in the way the city does business.

The proposed fire department spending plan, they said, is a logical place to look since it’s the city biggest budget item at more than $8.8 million.

Watertown Professional Fire Fighters Association Local 191 would have to agree to any staffing changes. The current contract expires in June.

Under the contract, 15 people are scheduled to work on each of the three shifts in case of sickness, vacations and overtime. To get to a call in the national standard of eight minutes, the department needs to have 15 people on duty at all times at the city’s three fire stations, Fire Chief Dale C. Herman said.

“We don’t have a mechanism in place to make a change,” he said.

A fire study would, however, spell out any staffing changes, either the loss of fire department personnel or additional positions. A study of his department would cost between $30,000 and $60,000, Chief Herman said.

The department now employs 78 people: 49 firefighters, 20 captains, five battalion chiefs, a fire chief, a deputy chief, and two staffers in the code enforcement office. Chief Herman said the department should staff 82 under the formula of 15 on duty at all times.

In recent years, the department has lost two firefighter positions after the retirements of upper brass by promoting from within and not filling positions at the bottom, he said.

The demand for services continues to increase, with the department responding to 4,149 calls, including 233 fire incidents and 2,464 emergency medical calls, in 2013, according to the proposed city budget.

The 2002 study by MMA Consulting Firm Inc., Boston, found few ways the city could reduce the department’s cost. It suggested closing the Mill Street station and moving staff to the Massey Street and State Street stations; adding 19 people to the staff and purchasing new equipment, he said.

The city of Auburn is comparable with Watertown in population and size and both cities have a river running through them, Chief Herman said. In Auburn, 14 firefighters are on duty at all times and the department employs a staff of 68.

He also noted that the city of Lockport, which is smaller than Watertown, recently reduced its staff from nine people at all times to seven to reduce costs.

During the 1980s, the city had four fire stations, but closed the one on Washington Street and replaced the main station on Arsenal Street with the Massey Street station.

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