East Lyme officials hoping to hire two overnight firefighters

East Lyme — Town officials are negotiating a deal with the fire departments and East Lyme Ambulance Association to hire two full-time firefighters to cover overnight shifts for the town.

Because the town isn't looking to increase spending for added personnel, the ELAA has agreed to pay a large portion of those employees’ salaries over a five-year contract, First Selectman Mark Nickerson said.

Beyond finances, the positions, according to Nickerson and Flanders Fire Chief William Rix, are needed to help ensure resident safety overnight with reasonable response times.

“Basically, this all comes down to the continuing decrease in volunteers,” Rix said by phone last week, detailing what has been a chronic issue for the town while also explaining that a lack of volunteers makes responding to overnight emergencies more difficult.

“The lack of volunteers is taking a toll on our emergency services, and the call volume isn’t decreasing, either,” Rix said. “This is about providing help to everyone, and it’s a cheaper solution than a full-paid fire department.”

At the moment, Rix explained that fire coverage in East Lyme is managed by seven full-time firefighters spread between the town’s two departments and dozens of volunteers. Fire departments are staffed from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. and until midnight on weekends. From midnight onwards, however, both incoming fire and medical emergency calls are taken over by volunteer firefighters and EMT personnel from home.

“Right now, we are relying on people to get up, get out of bed and get dressed and drive to the firehouse,” Rix said. “From there, they need to select the appropriate vehicle for the emergency on hand and then drive to its location.”

Rix said that response times, at best, can fall in the ballpark of five to six minutes. Full-time coverage, however, potentially would allow response times to decrease to three minutes.

“If there is someone in the firehouse, that will save on travel time,” Rix said. “If it’s a medical emergency, every minute counts. Every minute you’re not there, there is less of a chance for revival for a person. As far as fires go, the early stages are the most critical time for firefighters to respond to.”

Both firefighters would be considered employees of the town and would receive a five-year contract to begin.

Due to the town’s limited spending flexibility, Rix said that ELAA has offered to pay the salaries of the two positions, which are estimated around $141,000 combined, over a three-year period starting on July 1. The town then would pay their benefits, estimated at $59,000. ELAA also has agreed to cover overtime costs not exceeding 10 percent of those salaries, or $155,000.

After that initial three-year period, Rix said ELAA would pay both the salary and benefits for one of the firefighters for an additional two years, while the town would be responsible for both the salary and benefits for the other employee over those two years.

Nickerson could not comment Monday as to whether the town would absorb the total costs of the two positions after the initial five-year contract ends, stating that such details still were being negotiated. He said the Board of Selectmen is “aiming” to lock down and approve final numbers at its Feb. 6 meeting. The Board of Finance then would have to approve the expenditures, as well.

“We are still early on this, we are still negotiating some terms on this and how this will work. It’s new ground. We have a relationship with the ELAA that goes far back and this is a new chapter in our relationship,” Nickerson said.

As to whether he could ensure that ELAA would pay their negotiated costs, Nickerson said, “I’m confident that they will be able to meet their obligations and enter into this partnership.”

“There is a need to have full-timers overnight,” he continued. “And the ELAA knows the town is not in an economic situation to build personnel and increase costs. I think it’s a great opportunity to improve our services to the town and to also improve the ambulance service.”

Board of Finance Vice Chairwoman Lisa Picarazzi questioned whether her board would pass the proposal, saying that it hasn't yet been presented. She also questioned what would happen after the five-year contract ends.

"It's easy to sweeten the pot in the beginning," Picarazzi said by phone Tuesday. "But I think it's very likely taxpayers would end up funding this after that contract ends."

Having already started a selection process for the positions — the openings were posted in the fall — Rix said he, Fire Marshal Chris Taylor and police Chief Mike Finkelstein have narrowed their selections down to 17 out of the 40 original applicants.

Rix said the two open positions tentatively are set to begin on March 1, with East Lyme Ambulance paying for both employees’ salary and benefits in full until the outlined five-year contract begins July 1.

East Lyme Ambulance's budget is not funded through taxes. Rix said money received from medical fees billed to patients and their insurance plans constitutes the association’s budget. Billing rates are set by the state, he said. A seven-member committee oversees and approves expenditures made by the ambulance association, said Rix, who also is a member of that committee.

“This is something that the ambulance association wants to move along, so we looked at the numbers and we thought this could work,” Rix said. “We wanted to offer to partially pay for these positions so that the town could at least get them into place.”

m.biekert@theday.com

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