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Lockport Common Council discusses federal grant to rehire firefighters

LOCKPORT – After receiving a briefing Wednesday from interim Fire Chief Patrick K. Brady, the Common Council will decide next week whether to apply for a federal grant that could be used to rehire four laid-off firefighters.

Brady said the SAFER grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency can be used only for rehiring, not to pay for firefighters currently on the payroll, unless the city can show that more layoffs are imminent because of financial woes.

Brady said the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grant pays for full salary and benefits for the firefighters brought back from layoff, but not any overtime they may incur. The federal money lasts two years, and the city is not supposed to delete any of the existing Fire Department roster spots during that time.

“When the grant is done, it will be up to the Council and mayor how many people work in the Fire Department again,” Brady said.

He recommended asking for enough money to rehire four of the 12 firefighters dropped in the past 13 months. That would be about $400,000.

“At the termination of the grant, the city does not have to keep them,” Mayor Anne E. McCaffrey said.

“Or apply for another grant,” said Brady, who said FEMA officials have told him that Lockport stands a “very good” chance of winning a grant. The money would arrive sometime between June and September; the application deadline is March 6.

“We should apply,” said Alderman Patrick W. Schrader, who serves on the Fire Board. “It doesn’t mean we have to take the money.”

The Fire Department is currently budgeted for 34 positions, but one is vacant because of last month’s retirement of Fire Chief Thomas J. Passuite. Schrader said that the board wants to recall a man to fill that roster spot, but no decision will be made until Passuite’s permanent successor is chosen. The Fire Board is interviewing six candidates Feb. 12.

The department currently is divided into four platoons of eight firefighters each, with two platoons working each day.

The city has a minimum manning policy of six firefighters per shift, so there is more of a buffer than last summer, when overtime costs zoomed to record levels because the minimum staffing level was nine, and none of the platoons had more than nine on their roster.

“Every time somebody was on vacation, which was all summer, we had overtime for all those shifts,” McCaffrey said. If a platoon can’t field the minimum staffing level, members of other platoons are called in and paid time and a half for the whole shift.

The city limits the number of vacationing firefighters per platoon to three at a time, except on major holidays, when the limit is four.

The city didn’t cut the minimum manning figure from nine to six until Sept. 15, when it did away with the department’s ambulance service.

McCaffrey said the city has budgeted $300,000 for fire overtime this year; last year’s bill was a record $706,478. The mayor said if the city wins the grants and brings back four firemen, “I don’t think we would need to have $300,000 in the 2016 budget.”

But Council President Joseph C. Kibler said that several years ago, when the Council agreed to hire six new firefighters, Passuite “sat in that corner and said if we hired those six guys, he could almost guarantee the overtime would go to zero. That year, the overtime nearly doubled.”