Presque Isle passes budget that alleviates firefighter reduction worries

Posted Dec. 12, 2012, at 10:36 p.m.

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — One year ago, the City Council passed a resolve to reduce the full-time staff at the Presque Isle Fire Department from four to three people per shift effective in January 2013.

During a meeting on Monday night, however, councilors agreed to a compromise that they say will slightly change the workings of the department but preserve safety for firefighters and the community.

The changes are a part of the $10.8 million budget that will maintain the $23.50 property tax rate for the third year in a row, City Manager Jim Bennett said on Tuesday.

The Presque Isle Fire Department has worked with four-man shifts for decades. As part of that system, individual firefighters are trained to operate specific vehicles and equipment.

The department is currently manned by the fire chief and 11 full-time firefighters. The full-timers work in three shifts. With three-man shifts, however, volunteer on-call firefighters who support the shifts would have had to be trained to operate all trucks and equipment. Firefighters also would have been discouraged from having second jobs so they could be more available to respond to fires.

Fire Chief Darrell White told councilors that his department has 21 volunteers, with 12 of them having basic fire school training. Firefighters follow the “2 in, 2 out” rule to assure that they never go into a dangerous situation in a fire or rescue incident alone. Two enter the burning structure while two remain outside ready to help in case of an emergency.

White said that in order to comply with the rule, all four people must be certified to use a self-contained breathing apparatus. The chief said it takes a minimum of one and a half years to achieve certification, adding that because volunteers have to give up a lot of time to attend classes, many of them are unable to attain the certification.

The council was presented with a fire mitigation report in July in order to explore ways to lessen challenges at the department if staffing levels dropped from four per shift to three. The findings included pursuing a live-in student program targeting college students studying fire science or a similar program and offering longevity rewards such as bonuses or increases in pay to attract more volunteers and retain current ones. Another option was hiring summer help and paying per-diem workers to fill sick and vacation times.

The cost of each option ran from $10,000 up to $40,000

The council faced resistance from community members ever since the resolve was passed last year. Opponents of the plan feared it would risk their safety and that of the firefighters. Others thought that the recommendations in the fire mitigation report were too costly.

After negotiations on Monday evening, the council ultimately decided to preserve two of the three 24 hours shifts so that each has a four man crew. On the third crew, however, there is currently a vacancy. That slot will be covered by a combination of per-diem and full-time firefighters.

Traci Place, a business agent for Teamsters Local 340, a union covering the fire department, said Wednesday that she is pleased the council did not make the proposed cuts. At the same time, she said firefighters on the third shift will lose the consistency they’ve had in the past, since the fourth firefighter will change frequently.

Bennett said he was happy that councilors found a resolution.

“They put in a lot of time on this budget and they worked hard examining possibilities with the goal of holding the tax rate,” he said.”They reached that goal.”

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