Watertown Fire Department to hire more firefighters

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Feb. 6—WATERTOWN — City Council members on Monday night informally agreed to hire four city firefighters and to apply for a federal grant that would pay for additional staffing.

Council members Lisa A. Ruggiero, Cliff G. Olney III and Patrick J. Hickey supported adding the fire department staff after Fire Chief Matthew R. Timerman said over the weekend that overtime costs could reach as much $1.2 million, citing current staffing shortages.

In a memo sent to council over the weekend, Chief Timerman said that overtime costs are “extraordinarily high.”

Overtime expenses are skyrocketing after the city failed in December to secure $1.338 million in federal funding from the Staffing for an Adequate Fire and Emergency Response, or SAFER grant program. That would have paid for the hiring of five city firefighters, Chief Timerman said.

During a lengthy debate, Mayor Jeffrey M. Smith argued against adding more fire department staff, in part by contending that long-term retirement and health benefit costs would increase by having more personnel.

The four new firefighters would bring fire department staffing from 64 to 68, but Chief Timerman expects two retirements will occur later this year. He told council members that the “sweet spot” for staffing is 72.

The new hires would save the city about $100,000 annually, but that would take about three years to achieve, Chief Timerman said.

“You might have more savings or less savings,” he said.

It will take about six months to get the new firefighters trained and on staff.

Without hiring the five additional firefighters with the SAFER grant, Chief Timerman said the department has spent $680,000 in overtime, or about 87% of the budgeted amount with half of the fiscal year still remaining. He expects overtime costs to reach $1.2 million by the end the fiscal year.

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