New fire truck could help cut down on city overtime expenses

Brock A. Stein | 2/7/2018, 11:01 a.m.
City officials are grappling with the best way to reduce overtime costs at its 10 fire stations.
Joliet Fire Station No. 3 at 450 Laraway Road would be closed in order to reduce overtime expenditures under the proposed 2016 budget presented to the Joliet City Council Monday night.

City officials are grappling with the best way to reduce overtime costs at its 10 fire stations.

This week, the city postponed a vote on a proposal to repair one of the fire department’s vehicles and purchase another with an eye toward reducing the number of crew members needed to staff some of it stations.

A tower truck with rescue bucket that was damaged in December would be repaired and retrofitted as a quint, a multi-purpose rescue vehicle outfitted with a ladder, hoses and carrying up to 500 gallons of water. That would cost just over $180,000 for the retrofit but would free up one person to serve as back up to fill in for absences said Chief Joe Formhals.

In addition, the purchase of a demo model quint for station 1 would also free up another person to help with coverage he said. The total cost of the demo truck’s $841,000 price would be reduced through the use of $458,000 in Community Block Development Grant funds, as well as the sale of a ladder truck for $250,000. All told the city would pay $133,000 in out of pocket costs according to a city memo detailing the plan.

Formhals said that he is “trying to manage overtime numbers and also trying to be a little more flexible with the way that we staff vehicles” with the plan.

He said that the department has had a Quint unit in service at station 9 dince 2015 that replaced a engine and truck with 3-member crews on each.

“That freed up 3 individuals each day that we were able to add to our floater pool,” he said, “that’s what we’re trying to do at station 1.”

He said that the plan would offer more flexibility in staffing and would free up some personnel to re-assign for public education, a fire inspector, and a quality control data analyst for its EMS department.

Joliet mayor Bob O’Dekirk noted the high cost of overtime pay for the department which amounted to $300,000 for the month of December.

“That’s $10,000 a day,” said the mayor, calling the amount “obscene.”

“That’s not our money it’s tax payer money,” he said.

City council member Bettye Gavin said she was worried that the reduction in staffing would reduce the number of personnel who respond to fires but Formhals said that emergency calls such as structure fires would still see 17 report to a scene which would include 3 engines, a ladder truck, 2 ambulances and a battalion chief.

With 17,000 ambulance calls per year, Odekirk said that the moves would make sure that those units that respond to about 87% of total calls each year will continue. Formhals said that the goal is to keep 9 ambulance units in service and 1 advanced life support engine in each service area.

The goal said the chief is to reduce overtime costs and begin rebuilding its staffing toward a goal of 209 employees. The vehicle purchase and the retrofit would allow the daily staffing to go from 51 to 47.

He said that the department is currently down by 12 employees with 1 person planning to retire and two employees on long-term disability most likely not returning.

City Manager David Hales and Mayor O’Dekirk want to create more “dialogue” with front-line employees in the department and with union leaders. That includes publishing a study completed last year that looked at the needs of the department.

“That is one of the things that’s been missing,” said Hales who said that a “robust dialogue” would help clarify the challenges with all of the shareholders that the city faces with a projected $5.1 million structural deficit for the year.

Jim Blake, Joliet Fire Captain at Station #9, said that the proposal to replace some units with the Quint is akin to using a multi-purpose tool like a Swiss army knife.

“It does a lot of things but it doesn’t do a lot of things well,” said Blake who said that that he and others are not “at odds” with Formhals.

“He’s trying to do as much as he can with as little as he’s getting,” said Blake.