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Injuries cost Easthampton Fire Department in overtime

— For the second year in a row, Fire Chief David A. Mottor has asked the City Council for additional overtime funding to cover the shifts of firefighters out with injuries.

Last year the overtime shortfall was around $30,000, but in a memo reviewed by the City Council Wednesday, Mottor requested $103,000 to cover overtime costs until the end of the fiscal year on June 30.

A shortage of on-call dispatchers available to cover shifts for full-time dispatchers has also left the dispatch department with a projected deficit of about $11,000 in overtime, Mottor said.

The City Council Wednesday referred both requests to the finance subcommittee for consideration.

“It’s been killing us,” he said of the shifts firefighters have been missing. The department has paid out almost all of the $170,000 line item meant to cover overtime for covering shifts for the entire fiscal year.

In addition to costing the city money, Mottor said that all the overtime has been wearing out his employees, who sometimes have to be told after a 10- or 14-hour shift that they have to stay for another shift to keep a minimum of five firefighters on at all times.

“It’s starting to take a toll,” he said. “More and more, especially during the holidays, there were overtime shifts that no one wanted.”

Bad timing

Mottor said his department of 25 firefighters had several line-of-duty injuries last year, but the reason they compounded to cost so much more in overtime was “just timing,” because they happened simultaneously.

The most costly injury is that of Daniel Regan, a full-time firefighter who injured his back in January 2011. He returned to work for three weeks in October 2011, but aggravated the injury and has been out since, Mottor said.

Because it seems unlikely Regan will ever be able to return to work due to the injury, Mottor said the city is taking steps to involuntarily retire him. The city’s Retirement Board has started the paperwork, but it can take months for the state to review the case and hold a medical panel to determine if the employee is indeed unable to work.

“Its a long process,” Mottor said.

According to state law, police officers and firefighters who are injured while on duty continue to receive their full, untaxed wages while they are out of work until they either return to work or retire.

Normally, the department would not be able to afford to hire a replacement until the employee is officially retired, but Mayor Michael A. Tautznik gave Mottor permission to find a replacement.

The holdup now, Mottor said, is bureaucracy. The state Civil Service Unit, which gives exams to municipal employees in order to create a merit system to determine who is hired or promoted, has not certified its most recent list of employees that the department could hire.

Mottor said that until the list is certified, he cannot select a replacement from it. If he is able to hire a replacement before the end of January, he said he could reduce the amount he is asking the City Council for by $10,000.

In addition to Regan’s injury, another firefighter injured his back while working for the city in August and is still out of work. Mottor estimated it could be another four months until he can work again.

A third firefighter missed 17 shifts and is still out after having surgery due to an illness, Mottor said. Another firefighter missed 17 shifts when he was put on administrative leave. Mottor declined to give the firefighter’s name or the reason he was put on leave, but said the firefighter is now back at work.

The department usually has on-call firefighters who are paid about $12 per hour to fill in, but Mottor said the last on-call firefighter left in December to take a job with the Northampton Fire Department. That leaves only full-time firefighters to work overtime to cover others’ shifts, he said.

Dispatchers stretched thin

Mottor said the $11,000 dispatch deficit is because there have been no on-call dispatchers to cover shifts for the last three or four months, leaving only full-time dispatchers to work overtime to fill in.

In a second memo to the City Council, Mottor said there were no eligible on-call dispatchers mostly because they have not completed the required Emergency Medical Dispatch training.

Dispatch Supervisor Lauren Mielke is in the process of hiring four new on-call dispatchers to alleviate the problem and is pursuing state public safety grants to cover some of the expenses, Mottor said.

Rebecca Everett can be reached at reverett@gazettenet.com.

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