Manpower shortage cause for overtime problem

Published 11:14 am Monday, October 5, 2015

A shortage of manpower is the major reason the Vicksburg Fire Department is in the situation it’s in with overtime, Fire Chief Charles Atkins said.

The city’s firefighters work 24-hour shifts. Under city policy, they work 2,912 hours a year and have 230 hours of overtime per year built into their pay, which is known as built-in overtime. Unscheduled overtime is overtime a firefighter receives if they are called to fill in for another firefighter because of illness or because a station is short-handed. And unscheduled overtime is the culprit.

As of Sept. 23, the last available salary report, fire department overtime had cost the city about $813,535 for 46,223 hours overtime, and unscheduled overtime accounted for more than half that total.

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Excessive unscheduled overtime put the fire department’s personnel budget, which covers salaries and benefits, overbudget, forcing the board to amend it by $300,000, using surplus funds from other departments funded by the general fund budget.

Atkins said he has 16 unfilled openings, the result of firefighters either resigning or retiring and some entry level firefighters failing to make the grade during their probationary period.



He said he began fiscal 2014 with 34 firefighters per shift and is down now to 22 per shift, not counting ambulance and rescue members, which he said are not counted by the Mississippi Fire Rating Bureau in fire department manpower regulations.

Ty Windham, rating bureau director, said regulations call for a minimum of 23 firefighters per shift, excluding supervisors and ambulance workers.

The fire department operates four ambulances with two people each and a rescue unit with two firefighters.

“That’s 10 people (who) all are cross-trained as EMT/paramedic. We also run non-civil service paramedics, and when one of those (ambulance) paramedics is not in or on the job, we have to use a fire paramedic, and that takes away from fire side,” he said.

“I can’t control a lot of things that happen with human beings,” he said. “People get sick, people go on vacation and different things. I’m not trying to put an excuse, but it’s just that things happen like that.”

He said some department positions require specialized training, “so if we don’t have that person (on shift), we have to hold over somebody to do that job, and usually, that’s where that overtime comes in at,” he said.

Atkins said he presently has two firefighters per shift for each truck in the city with the exception of stations 5 and 9, which have three firefighters per shift.

Station 5 is at the Vicksburg Municipal Airport off U.S. 61 South, and Station 9 is the department’s northernmost station at Waltersville Street. Both are fully staffed because of their distances from the other stations.

He added his personnel budget has also been cut the past three fiscal years.

A review of the fiscal 2013, 2014 and 2015 budgets indicated the department’s personnel budgets were cut in 2013 and 2015, but increased in fiscal 2014. The 2013 personnel budget was cut $49,900 from fiscal 2012, while the 2015 budget was cut by more than $500,000.

The 2014 personnel budget was increased by about $397,383 — from $4.599 million in 2013 to $4.996 million in 2014. It was later increased at the end of the fiscal year by $14,097, to $5.01 million.

In an effort to reduce overtime and meet state requirements, the board of Mayor and Aldermen voted 2-1 to close Station 7 for eight months out of the year — from Feb. 1 to Sept. 30 — and reallocate the firefighters there to other stations as a way to reduce overtime and increase manpower to the state-mandated three firefighters per truck. It’s a move Atkins opposes.

Atkins has proposed shutting down Engine No. 4, a pumper at the Central Fire Station, and reassigning a firefighter per shift from that engine to Station 7 to improve manpower there, with the other two crew members, a lieutenant and captain, remaining at Central to either fill openings at other stations as needed or handle Engine 4 if it is needed as a backup. It’s a move North Ward Aldermen Michael Mayfield supported

Closing Station 7, Atkins said, “In my opinion, it will be bad as far as putting people in a truck and getting there on time.”

Station 7 ‘s pumper, he said, ran more calls than Engine 4, and also has Vicksburg High School, three casinos, some industry and a residential community in its coverage area.

The fire department has also lowered the age for entering firefighters from 21 to 18, and developed a lateral transfer policy to allow qualified firefighters from other city departments to transfer to Vicksburg. The department will hold tests for entry-level firefighters at the end of the month.

Flaggs has given the chief’s idea with Engine 4 90 days, telling Mayfield and South Ward Alderman Willis Thompson if the overtime is not improved at the end of that time compared with the same 90-day period in fiscal 2015, “I’m coming with a big recommendation.”

“If I had the time to do the improvements and the changes that we made, I believe we can come up and change that situation, but it’s going to take a little time, that’s all,” Atkins said. “I guess that’s what some people don’t want to give us, but at the same time, I can’t control time.”

Atkins hopes reducing the age limit for entry-level firefighter will attract people who will qualify and help cut the manpower shortage. He said some firefighters from other departments have discussed transferring, but added one of the department requirements is that firefighters have EMT Basic training.

“So we’re asking for patience, and as we wait and see, we’re still answering calls.”


About John Surratt

John Surratt is a graduate of Louisiana State University with a degree in general studies. He has worked as an editor, reporter and photographer for newspapers in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. He has been a member of The Vicksburg Post staff since 2011 and covers city government. He and his wife attend St. Paul Catholic Church and he is a member of the Port City Kiwanis Club.

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