Sept. 21—The Elgin Fire Department needs to end the practice of paying firefighters overtime to cover shifts when there isn't enough staff, Elgin Mayor Dave Kaptain said.
"We're in a good position for the next two or three years, but this is not sustainable anymore," Kaptain said during a special city council meeting Wednesday at which overtime expenditures in all city departments were discussed.
The department was directed to study the scheduling system and return to the council in six to nine months with a model that does not rely heavily on overtime to cover vacancies when someone is sick, injured or attending training.
Elgin's 2017-18 budget calls for the fire department to save $700,000 in overtime by reducing two positions per shift, going from 34 to 32 firefighters on call. By restructuring how the 32 firefighters are deployed for service calls, employees did not have to be laid off, the budget said.
At the Wednesday meeting, Fire Chief Dave Schmidt said his 133-member department is on track to meet the number and will spend close to the $1.1 million budgeted for overtime. The challenges in keeping overtime inline come when firefighters are unable to work for legitimate reasons and someone must be tapped to take their place to ensure there are enough people available, Schmidt said.
About 75 percent of the fire department's calls are for ambulance service, he said, and the department is looking at what other cities do to control their costs.
They're also exploring programs that might be able to meet the needs of people who call for ambulances frequently or provide more efficient ways to deal with calls that are more minor, Schmidt said.
Kaptain said the fire department has been using an overtime model for at least 15 years, and he is concerned about factors that could make it less dependable or effective.
Younger firefighters aren't as enthusiastic about working overtime, he said, and over-relying on overtime could increase the likelihood of mistakes happening.
Beyond that, Elgin's population continues to grow—500 homes and 250 apartments are on the drawing board and there's more residential and commercial development on the horizon—but the city has not added any new firefighters, Kaptain said.
"There's not an urgency, but we have to start planning. We're going to have to pay for this someday," he said.
Councilman Toby Shaw cautioned there will be no easy way to address the overtime and staffing issues given that the city must balance the service the community wants with what the city can afford.
Whatever staff might find, Kaptain said, the International Association of Firefighters Local 439 will need to be part of the discussion. Noting past tensions between the union and city management, he said, "Us versus them has to stop. The union needs to be at the table, and we all need to push forward together."
Fire union President Joe Galli said they want to be involved in such discussions. Their concerns are not about preserving overtime pay but doing what's safest for their members, he said.