At yesterday’s Lowell Area Fire & Emergency Services Authority Board meeting, a consultant laid out his recommendations for how the fire department should adjust its staffing to meet the needs of the community.
Tim McGrath, principal with McGrath Consulting Group, spent approximately an hour and a half presenting his findings which were also provided to the board in a 126-page written report. McGrath has been an independent consultant since 1997 and was previously a fire chief in Illinois and Wisconsin.
“There are a lot more positives in this organization than negatives,” McGrath said at the start of his presentation. However, he did have suggestions for improvements.
Chief among his recommendations was that the department hire a full-time fire chief and two part-time firefighters for daytime coverage. He also said the Fire Authority Board should change its form of governance to have a more active role within the department going forward.
Staffing Price Tag: $230,000+ Annually
Currently, the Lowell Fire Department has 22 members who all work on a part-time or on-call basis. These include the fire chief, deputy fire chief and four lieutenants. They serve a region that covers 60 square miles and has a population of 15,624 residents.
The average number of calls has increased 5.4% over the past 10 years, according to McGrath’s analysis. Emergency/medical situations account for 63.4% of calls while the remaining 36.6% are for fires.
McGrath noted the fire chief responds to many of the calls, presumably because there are limited on-call firefighters available during the department’s busiest times. Based on a three-year average, the department receives the greatest percentage of calls – 6.24% of the total – during the 3pm hour. The other busiest hours are, respectively, 4pm, 5pm, 12pm and 1pm.
“You legitimately have a situation in which you need people during the day,” McGrath said.
Current Fire Chief Ron van Overbeek had previously announced his intention to retire in September, and McGrath suggested the board conduct a national search for a full-time fire chief to fill the position. City of Lowell Mayor Mike DeVore, who sits on the authority board, asked why they couldn’t hire the new chief from current members. McGrath replied that hiring internally isn’t a problem, but there should be some sort of formal hiring process to ensure it is clear the new chief was selected based on his or her merits rather than any perceived favoritism.
McGrath estimated the cost of a full-time fire chief to be $105,000. Of that, $75,000 would be salary and the remainder benefits.
Once a full-time fire chief has been hired, McGrath recommended hiring two part-time employees to cover the daytime hours of 6am to 5pm on weekdays. These positions could be first offered to current on-call firefighters or hired externally if needed. McGrath estimated the cost of these workers to be $75,456 annually. He based his projections on a $12 an hour pay rate, but DeVore noted a department pay study indicated $14 per hour might be the expected rate.
In addition to these workers, the report recommends the department hire an administrative assistant to ensure the fire chief doesn’t get bogged down in paperwork and administrative tasks. The cost for an administrative assistant could be expected to run around $50,000 per year.
Board member Carlton Blough asked how the board should consider funding these staffing needs. McGrath didn’t think the department members should be responsible for raising money by holding fundraisers or going door-to-door. Instead, he noted voters are often supportive of millage requests for fire services. There are also FEMA grants to pay for full-time firefighters, but McGrath cautioned those often came with “hooks.”
Board Urged to Reconsider Management Style
In addition to the question of staffing, McGrath’s report also discussed concerns with the Authority Board. When surveyed, members of the Fire Department said the board was their number one weakness.
“They don’t understand us. They don’t understand what we do,” were frequent comments by firefighters, according to McGrath.
To address this issue, McGrath suggested more interaction between the board and members. For instance, an annual “state of the department” address from the chief to both members and the board might be a good place to start. Having board members ride along on calls, encouraging board members to attend department social activities and changing the board meeting times were also discussed.
McGrath went on to say the board currently takes a laissez-faire – or hands-off – approach to managing the department. When surveyed for the report, board members responded their only job was to oversee the fire chief and approve the budget. However, McGrath noted this type of governance may not work well once full-time staff is hired.
“You have to start acting like one organization,” McGrath said. While the board seems to view itself as having only one employee, the fire chief, it is legally responsible for everything that happens in the department. “The buck stops at the board,” McGrath explained.
“It does not mean that you should micromanage,” he added. However, the board should be involved to setting the direction and policies of the department and allowing the fire chief to implement them.
It was also recommended the board have someone as a designated contact for employees. While employee disputes should first be routed through supervisors, there may be instances in which the board needs to become involved. “You are responsible for the employees,” McGrath said.
Overall though, McGrath was largely positive about the board and department. “You have a lot of good things in place,” he said. “You should be proud.”
The Authority Board did not take any action after receiving the report and any change to staffing would presumably need to be approved by the City of Lowell, Lowell Charter Township and Vergennes Township, which are all members of the Authority.