East Lyme to hire two overnight firefighters

East Lyme — Amid higher call volumes and declining volunteerism, the town, its two fire departments and the independent East Lyme Ambulance Association signed an agreement this past week to hire and split the costs for two full-time firefighters, further ensuring resident safety overnight without spending more taxpayer money to do so.

Deemed as “precedent-setting" by First Selectman Mark Nickerson in an interview Thursday, the five-year agreement offers a solution to issues impacting coverage and response times, while also potentially providing a framework should the town ever need to hire additional fire personnel as municipalities in the region debate over federal labor laws dictating that town employees may not perform "volunteer services for the same entity by which they are employed."

The town and its fire departments have not taken a hard stance on the Fair Labor Standards Act, keeping with the “status quo,” Nickerson said, even as other towns such as Montville and Waterford have, on the advice of attorneys, forced firefighters to pick either to serve as volunteers or work as paid part-timers.

Nickerson said the town has been working with its attorney to determine an exact legal definition of the law, stating that each town has its own way of organizing fire services and that East Lyme’s system might not violate those laws.

He said paid East Lyme part-time firefighters still are picking up volunteer shifts when necessary, especially as was the case during the Guy’s Oil fire in May.

“It was all hands on deck. Some of the volunteers that came out were part-timers working outside of their designated shifts,” Nickerson said. “The bedrock of fire departments in New England is based in volunteerism. You can’t change that. So we may have to find a way around that, but we can’t change the need of volunteers.”

Fire coverage in East Lyme currently is managed by seven full-time firefighter/EMTs — soon to be nine — and 13 part-timers hired by the town, as well as about 35 to 40 active volunteers, spread across the two fire departments in Flanders and Niantic.

“Enmeshed” with the East Lyme Ambulance Association, as Nickerson explained, the fire departments work closely together with the ambulance association, which functions out of both departments, to respond to emergencies, often sharing volunteers.

Volunteers hired by either the fire departments or the ambulance association, however, are not under town jurisdiction, Nickerson said. Both the ambulance association and the two fire departments are responsible for the hiring and management of their volunteers and do not go through a town hiring process.

“This (agreement) is a positive step,” Nickerson said. “This might be a piece of that solution in the conflict of paid versus volunteer firefighters.”

The agreement, signed by Nickerson on Wednesday after receiving unanimous approval from the Board of Selectmen, outlines that the ambulance association will pay the salaries of the two town-employed firefighters — amounting to about $140,000 between the two annually — through quarterly reimbursements to the town. The ambulance association also will pay both employees’ overtime costs, while the town will cover their health benefits.

The ambulance association's budget is funded through money received from medical fees billed to patients and their insurance plans, not through town taxes.

Nickerson said both firefighters are expected to be in their positions by July 1, or as “close to July 1 as possible,” and one will serve in each department.

“This is the first time we are saying, 'Let’s hire two people together. I’ll pay for this part, you pay for this part,'” Nickerson said, while explaining that the town did not want to increase its spending on added fire personnel, of which it paid approximately $822,000 last year toward both full-time and part-time salaries, including overtime, according to town records.

“Through this, we have made the town better, we made firefighting better and we made the ambulance better,” Nickerson said. “It is precedent-setting. It is new ground.”

Hiring the two firefighters, according to Flanders Fire Chief William Rix, fills a need to cover overnight hours with paid staff rather than rely on volunteers who, especially on weekdays, are less able to respond to emergencies due to having families or full-time jobs. The firefighters will work 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. Sunday through Friday.

Presently, both fire departments are staffed from 8 a.m. to midnight, with gaps in staffing throughout the night, except during summer months, when overnight part-time positions are scheduled during those hours, Rix said Friday.

In other non-summer months, however, both fire chiefs said that their departments can be left empty after midnight some nights, though volunteers often do stay overnight in both. On those other nights, however, volunteers are relied upon to respond to emergency calls from their homes.

Rix explained that volunteers, when responding to calls from home, must receive the call, get up, get dressed and drive their vehicle to the fire station before responding to an emergency in the appropriate vehicle, either an ambulance or fire engine.

“This (hiring) should make the call responses quicker,” Rix said. “You are cutting out the time it takes a volunteer person that’s leaving from their home to drive there and get the ambulance. With someone already in the fire house overnight, it will save that much time.”

Both Rix and Niantic fire Chief John Dwire said Friday that weekend nights, which include Friday and Saturday, still will be covered by volunteers and coverage on those nights typically is not an issue.

Considering that firefighter volunteerism has been on the decline nationally due to people's busier schedules and lengthier and costlier firefighter training processes, Dwire also explained that it’s become increasingly more difficult to keep up with growing call volumes over the years.

Dwire said the Niantic Fire Department expects to receive a total of 2,300 calls this year by the end of June — 200 more than the 2,100 the department received in the same period last year. Dwire said he could not differentiate which percentage of those calls have been made between fire and medical emergencies.

And while Rix couldn’t give exact call volume numbers Friday, he said the Flanders Fire Department also was on par with the same increased call volume this year.

“The volunteer system is not what it used to be. Our numbers aren’t what (they) used to be. We are relying more on paid staff and paid personnel,” Dwire said. “Collaborations like this are occurring more and more, and we’re just happy we were able to come together to keep our service and provide the same level of service.”

“This is recognizing a need to maintain the level of service our departments provide to the community,” he said. “We both identified that response times and staffing matters and in order to keep that level of service going, we thought this was the best way to continue that.”

m.biekert@theday.com

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