NAUGATUCK — As the borough and the firefighters’ union begin informal negotiations over a new contract, fire officials are pushing for increased department staffing.
Fire Chief Ken Hanks and the Board of Fire Commissioners want to create two new positions in the fire marshal’s office this year. One would be a full-time head fire marshal making $68,000, the other a secretary making $32,000, excluding benefits, said Wayne Malicki, chair of the fire commission.
The fire marshal’s office has not had a permanent head since 2010, when Charles Doback, who was also the fire chief, retired. The department’s current proposal would restore staffing in the fire marshal’s office to pre-1997 levels, when the position of fire marshal was combined with that of the deputy fire chief. Doback retained the fire marshal’s position when he was promoted to chief, but Hanks and newly-hired Deputy Fire Chief Ellen Murray are not fire marshals.
“You can pile titles on people, but they’re not going to be as efficient at doing both jobs,” Hanks said.
A lack of manpower has created a backlog in inspections, Acting Fire Marshal Robert Weaver said. At least 25 percent of multi-family homes in the borough have not been inspected in the past year as the state requires and some multi-family homes have never been inspected.
Weaver said he and William Scanlon, the acting deputy fire marshal, have both taken extended leaves this year for family and medical reasons, and have been otherwise engaged this year investigating major fires.
Weaver and Scanlon are both in the firefighters’ union, but the fire marshal has not historically been a member. The contract, however, stipulates the position must be offered first to union members.
“I’d be interested in talking to them, but that’s all at this point,” Weaver said. “I would have to see what the offer is.”
The fire department also wants to add eight firefighters — two per shift — to the roster, but will not ask for the positions in this year’s union negotiations, Malicki said.
“I’m hoping that the economy would pick up a little bit, so it would become a little more affordable,” Malicki said. “To go in this year and ask for eight more firefighters, I think, would be fiscally irresponsible.”
The borough currently staffs each of four shifts with eight firefighters and one dispatcher, the minimum under the union contract. When a firefighter cannot work for any reason, another must fill in for him and get paid time and a half under the contract. Hanks last week requested the town allot about $811,000 for firefighter overtime, a request the Board of Finance trimmed to $800,000.
The National Fire Protection Association recommends nine firefighters respond to each fire, which the union will eventually push to set as its shift minimum, Malicki said. A 10-firefighter shift would cut back on the need for others to fill in on overtime if one is absent, Malicki said.
Other large towns in greater Waterbury, such as Cheshire and Watertown, manage with mostly-volunteer forces. The finance board has suggested resuscitating the borough’s volunteer fire company to cut costs, but a 2006 attempt to do so failed for lack of interest.
“Other communities have a very long tradition of having a volunteer fire service,” Hanks said. “We haven’t had it for the past 20 to 30 years and it’s harder to start from scratch.”
Even if a volunteer company did form, volunteers could not fill in for union members to achieve shift minimums, fire officials said.
Mayor Robert Mezzo and Jim Ricci, president of the firefighters’ union, declined to comment on ongoing negotiations. The firefighters’ contract expires June 30.