Leader Blues

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

TOP STORY >>Mayor will find funds to pay for firefighters

By JOAN MCCOY
Leader staff writer

In the wake of criticism that the city has lost so many firefighters that there aren’t enough left to protect the residents and each other, Cabot Mayor Eddie Joe Williams said Tuesday that he will try to find the money to hire three full-time firefighters and 21 pay-per-call firefighters to more than replace the three who have resigned and the two who have been deployed.
To pay the $150,000 or so it will cost to hire more firefighters, Williams said he might have to trim the budgets of other city departments.

“All departments will become a stakeholder in solving this problem,” he said.

Additionally, he said that since safety is the issue, he will talk to MEMS about moving ambulances out of the residential neighborhood behind Price Cutter and into the fire stations on Highway 89 and Highway 321. It makes no sense to have both ambulances parked on the same side of the railroad track, he said. They once were housed at the fire stations and they can be again. “We get hundreds of calls a month for those ambulances and they should be strategically placed,” he said.

And while the mayor is not saying he is ready to stop large fire engines from running backup to the ambulances, he is saying that since some on the city council think it’s unnecessary, he will look for alternatives.

Currently, he said, he is considering modifying a pickup into a rescue vehicle that would be parked at Central Station. A handout from Fire Chief Phil Robinson during the Thursday evening fire and police meeting showed that of the 155 calls to the fire department in April, only one was a structure fire, while 116 were backup for MEMS. Williams put together his plan over the Memorial Day weekend.

He said during a press conference Tuesday that Fire Chief Phil Robinson will be getting more firefighters than the nine he told a local television station that he needed.

Insurance Services Office, which rates cities’ ability to fight fires, says three pay per call firefighters are equal to one fulltime firefighter, Williams said. So for ISO purposes, Robinson will get10 firefighters.

Cost overruns on the new community center and animal shelter and old bills that needed to be paid (such as more than $100,000 to the garbage company and the $10,000 a month that should have been paid to the judge’s pension plan) had the city about $1 million in the red when Williams took office in January.

Laying off eight employees cut about $500,000 from the 2007 budget, he said. But he was determined to build enough reserve that, at the very least, he wouldn’t have to worry about making payroll in the months with five paydays. While he didn’t lay off any firefighters or police officers, Williams said he would not fill vacant positions until he got the budget under control.

Scott Barker, president of the firefighters association, said during the Thursday night meeting of the fire and police committee that residents need not worry about their safety. If a house catches on fire, the fire department will be there to put it out and rescue anyone inside. The ones in danger are the firefighters, he said because if the two who now currently staff an engine are both inside, there is no one outside to watch out for them.

He warned the committee, “If we don’t do something, we’re going to get someone killed.”

Williams said during his press conference that every available firefighter responds to fire calls. Trucks from all three stations respond, he said.

And even off-duty firefighters wear pages so they can come in if needed. Asked if the firefighters were happy with his plan to increase their numbers, Williams said he had heard positive reports that they were and that he has asked them to help make it work.

Listening to the firefighters complaints Thursday night, Williams repeatedly told them that he heard what they were saying and understood their concerns.

By Sunday morning, he already had most of his plan put together and on Monday, a holiday, he called his fire chief in to tell him what he had in mind. “I’m ultimately the guy who’s got to float this ship in the right direction,” he said.