Fire service overtime costs drop amid COVID-19
The Kingston Whig Standard
 

Sarnia’s fire service overtime spending this year could be within budget for the first time since 2015.

That’s according to a report from the city’s fire chief that credits the COVID-19 pandemic as the most significant factor keeping overtime costs in check in 2020.

Physical distancing and other mitigation measures to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 also dropped the prevalence of other illnesses in the community and shrunk sick time in the fire service, said Fire Chief Brian Arnold.

Some firefighters also returned to work after long-term illnesses, he said.

The service has been dealing with ballooning overtime costs since four firefighting positions were eliminated in 2015 and post-traumatic stress disorder was introduced as a presumptive workplace illness in 2016.

In 2015, Sarnia spent $300,000 on fire service overtime costs. That more than doubled to $651,000 in 2016.

It spiked again in the following years, climbing to more than $1 million in 2017, 2018 and 2019.

Sarnia council increased the budget for 2020 – to $876,000 from about $511,000 – to soften the perennial budget blow and right size the account.

So far, with data counted until the end of August, the service is tracking to be under budget at year’s end by about $112,000.

“I chalk that up in large part to school being out or shut down early, the restaurants that were shut down during COVID, (and) people were not out in the community circulating and spreading coronavirus (and other disease),” Arnold said.

But the uncertainty of the pandemic could still cut into the fire service’s overtime if community spread resumes and firefighters are affected and need to be off work, he said.

He’s asking for council to up the service’s overtime budget to $1 million for 2021.

Council sets the next year’s budget in December.

“I think it’s prudent just to make sure we have adequate funding and we’re not surprised at the end of 2021 if we had to go to council and ask for more money,” Arnold said.

Sarnia has been adding “over-complement” firefighters for the past several years to help curb overtime costs.

With the service averaging three retirements per year, those over-complement hires become full firefighters anyway, Arnold said.

He’s suggesting they now be referred to as full-time-equivalent positions, and for council to add a fourth – there were three over-complement hires in 2020 – to bring staffing levels back to what they were in 2015.

Calling them full-time equivalent instead of over-complement hires is more pragmatic, he said.

“Calling it for what it is – those firefighters, they become full time, part of the permanent complement, with retirements throughout the year anyway.”

Boosting the fire suppression complement to 116 from 112 also equalizes staffing rates across all four platoons, he said.

Currently, three have 29 personnel and one has 28.

“There appears to be a containment of overtime costs, if not a modest net savings, as a result of the additional hires,” he wrote in his report to council.

Adopting the recommendations would save an estimated $66,000 in operational costs in 2021, his report says.

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