An Orono Fire Department truck is seen in Bangor in this August 2020 photo. Credit: Natalie Williams / BDN

ORONO, Maine — Despite being nearly three months into a new fiscal year, understaffing and extreme overtime are straining the Orono Fire Department’s budget.

Town Manager Sophie Wilson told the Town Council’s finance and operations committee Monday that staffing conditions inside the department are reaching dire levels. Last week one firefighter who is supposed to work 42 hours a week worked 120 hours due to the low number of available staff, Wilson said.

For several years now the fire department has been operating with minimal staffing levels of about five members per shift. In July, the department added a fourth shift to help distribute the amount of work and hours among more firefighters.

This isn’t the first time the department has faced this issue, Wilson said. But with three firefighters out — two of whom are on undetermined but lengthy medical leave and the third slated to return in October — the department will likely slip into the red when it comes to its budgeted overtime, she said.

“Given these absences and known vacation time, we are expecting overtime expense for the first half of the year to be $111,732,” Wilson said in background provided to the council. “This does not include additional vacation time requests, illness, injury or Family Medical Leave absences.”

The solution would be to add a “floater,” which is someone that isn’t assigned to a specific shift but would work full time, Wilson said.

The department is also anticipating a retirement in six months, so the plan laid out by Wilson would add one new floater to the department and allow time to test out the system, and see if a second would be needed.

“I want to put this in perspective, that asking firefighters — or any employees — to work overtime has two costs. One is the financial cost,” Wilson said. “The other is that of somebody that is scheduled to work … an average of 42 hours a week working 124 hours last week. That is the intangible side.”

Councilor Meghan Gardner said she’s concerned about the amount the firefighters have been working and supports adding a floater to ease the burden.

“This isn’t like you’re working at a flower shop, this is a high-stress, intense job,” Gardner said. “To ask people to continually push themselves beyond the limit of what they should be doing is a safety risk.”

Contractually, the town is not allowed to allow shifts to slip to four or fewer people, and at the current rate, Chief Geoffrey Low has often had to step in to be that fifth person, according to Wilson.

With all councilors in favor of the move, Wilson can now go about exploring the option of adding the floater to ease the burden on the department.

While the position would be permanent, town staff will be able to evaluate if a second floater is needed in February 2022, Wilson said.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the number of hours a firefighter worked last week as well as how many shifts the Orono Fire Department has. The firefighter worked 120 hours, and the fire department added a fourth shift.

Sawyer Loftus

Sawyer Loftus is a reporter covering Old Town, Orono and the surrounding areas. A recent graduate of the University of Vermont, Sawyer grew up in Vermont where he's worked for Vermont Public Radio, The...