By SHERIDAN ROY
Chief Richard Butler has good news for this budget season. After six months on the job, Butler reported a turning point in the long-running overtime issues with the Southington Fire Department.
The fire chief said that this year will be the first time in several years that SFD overtime will fall within the budget constraints.
“When I first came to this job, news of the department’s overtime was everywhere,” said Butler. “One of the first things that I came in to tackle was the overtime, and lucky for me, as long as everything continues in this direction, this year I will be operating within my budget which will be the first time in many years that has happened in the SFD.”
The major drive of overtime was a result of staffing issues between the career firefighters and volunteers. Butler eliminated a process called “all call,” in which every call that came in, no matter how minor or major, every firefighter was called. The department now looks at the type of calls coming in and limits the number of firefighters needed to respond based on the criteria of the call.
“I’d have a call where I only needed two pieces of apparatus and we were taking six or seven pieces,” said Butler. “We reduced that way back.”
In addition, the department has reduced the number of dispatched calls for volunteer firefighters.
“We were dispatching volunteers to 200 to 300 calls each year,” said Butler. “As soon as you break more than about 200 calls, that starts to be a problem for them based on the amount of commitment just to respond to calls. It has an impact on them, and then, you’re not guaranteed to get them on the call when you really need them.”
One of the major issues faced by Butler and the department is the challenge to recruit volunteers.
“Over the last 10 years, we’ve lost over 100 volunteers, and that gets really expensive,” he said. “For every 13 volunteers we lose, we only bring about 10 in.”
The department has reinstituted its volunteer recruitment committee, but modern families often have two working parents with children involved in extracurricular activities. Butler said that families are busy. In addition, there are many less dangerous opportunities to volunteer in communities today.
“There’s a saying in this business,” said Butler. “‘You can never train too much for a job that can kill you.’”
Another challenge fire departments across the country face today is found in newer homes. Butler described two types of homes: legacy homes, which are around 50 years old, and modern homes.
In legacy homes, it takes 20 minutes from the time a person smells smoke until the time they cannot escape the house. In modern homes, that time period is reduced to four minutes. This is due to synthetic materials being used more often, which are “nothing but flammable fuels for a fire,” said Butler.
Firefighters today are trained with a stronger focus on response times due to that reason. In addition, Butler said about 30 percent of calls involve emergency medical services (EMS), so staff must be trained have medical certification.
The board of fire commissioners is charged with putting forth the budget request to the Town Manager, Board of Finance and the Town Council. The BOF will review the department’s budget on Feb. 20.
“We have been in communication with the BOF as we’ve gone about changes, and they will not be blind-sighted when they review our budget,” said commissioner John Moise (D). “We have to prioritize what’s most important. Personally my biggest thing was safety and overtime, and there has been a 49 percent reduction in overtime this year.”
He explained the department has implemented a new system where, during the day, all fire stations will receive calls from across the town, but through the night, calls will be directed only to the nearest fire house.
“This doesn’t wear out the volunteers, who were taking on too many calls,” said Moise.
In their submitted budget proposal, commissioners are looking for two additional staff firefighters in their budget, air conditioning for Co. 5, one new fire engine, electronic security systems for firehouses and general upgrades at firehouses to bring them up to code with 2019. General upgrades will continue into future budgets.
“At the end of the day, the goal is to keep the town and our firefighters safe, and make this department one unit,” said Moise. “Great progress has been made already, but change doesn’t happen overnight.”
To comment on this story or to contact staff writer Sheridan Roy, email her at SRoy@SouthingtonObserver.com.