WILMINGTON — Fire officials asked Wilmington Council’s safety committee to consider adding six part-time firefighters to reduce overtime pay, to add an additional firefighter to each shift, and to reduce call backs for other firefighters.
The committee, comprised of chair Joe Spicer, Mark McKay and Rob Jaehnig, took no action other than recommending Mason and Wiswell amend their budget request to include the salaries. As budget season begins, the salaries of those firefighters would need to be in next year’s budget to pay them.
“We’ll have to look at how that affects the budget and obviously talk about it on council floor,” McKay told the News Journal.
Fire Chief Andy Mason and Assistant Fire Chief Mark Wiswell said the budget request already submitted to Wilmington Council’s finance committee didn’t include that request.
The firefighters would work a 24-hour shift every six days. Full-time firefighters work a 24-hour shift every three days. Because of the difference of employing a part-time versus a full-time firefighter, Mason said the city could hire six part-time firefighters for two full-time ones.
“This would definitely help us,” Wiswell said.
“And it seems to be the way of the future,” Mason added. “A core full-time staff supplemented by part-time” staff.
Part-time firefighters would cost about $32,000 per year each, depending on certification, according to a written document from Wiswell and Mason. Full-time ones cost about $90,000 per year, due in part to the benefits afforded them.
The estimate didn’t include buying gear for the officers. Wiswell told the committee he didn’t know if they had enough gear that would also fit the six firefighters.
The department currently has 14 full-time firefighters plus the assistant chief and chief. There are no part-time firefighters. At one time, the department had 41 firefighters, according to Wiswell.
There are two five-person shifts and a four-person shift. Minimum staffing is four, meaning that if someone takes a vacation or calls in sick, Mason and Wiswell cover that firefighter’s first eight hours and another firefighter covers the remaining 16 hours.
In addition to reducing overtime costs, Spicer said it would improve fire responses, saying, “We just don’t have adequate response to fires.”
“The more numbers you have, the more warm bodies that are out there to respond to a call, the better off the entire city is,” said Mayor Randy Riley. “We don’t have enough guys here locally to help us.”
Spicer also said it would free up Mason and Wiswell to do the planning and administration parts of their job, including building inspections, instead of working shifts.
“We’re gonna have fires again, and nobody’s going to show up and people are going to want to know why nobody’s at the fire,” Spicer said. “We’ve got to get our safety forces back up to where they need to be.”
Overtime pay currently makes up 13.8 percent of the department’s salary line, according to Mason, and the department has already paid more than $90,000 in overtime. Jaehnig and Wiswell were “shocked” it wasn’t higher.
Mason estimated paying $120,000 in overtime by the end of the year, and he estimated that could be cut in half by hiring the part-time officers he requested. If correct, that could pay for two of the part-time firefighters.
Wiswell said when the department had six firefighters per shift, overtime only made up four percent of his personnel costs.
“We really don’t have a whole lot of choice,” he said. “We’re just short.”
Spicer suggested that Mason and Wiswell amend their budget request to include salaries for those six part-time firefighters.
“We’ve kind of pushed the ball as far down the road as we can push the ball,” Jaehnig said. “It’s time to start solving problems instead of starting to survive.”
Reach Nathan Kraatz at 937-382-2574, ext. 2510 or on Twitter @NathanKraatz.