Lackawanna city officials abruptly shut down a fire station on Abbott Road on Thursday morning in an effort to reduce spiraling overtime costs in the Fire Department.
The firehouse was closed after several firefighters scheduled to work called in sick.
Wednesday, Mayor Geoffrey M. Szymanski, Public Safety Director Dana J. Britton and Fire Chief Ralph J. Galanti had revised city policy regarding minimum staffing levels for the department.
In the past, if staffing fell below nine firefighters during a shift, due to illness or injuries, the city called in enough off-duty firefighters to bring the staffing level to nine. Now, those call-ins won't happen until staffing dips below seven firefighters.
Having seven firefighters on duty makes it impossible to staff all three firehouses, because at least three firefighters must be assigned to a pumper that goes out on a call.
The policy change follows a scathing State Comptroller's Office audit released in August that found the city had overpaid firefighters by more than $120,000 in wages and leave time over several years.
Szymanski, who is in his first year as mayor, began expressing alarm about the overtime back in March.
The city ended up spending $511,031 - or $211,000 more than it had allocated in its budget - on Fire Department overtime between August 2011 and July 2012.
Last month alone, the city spent $60,104 on firefighter overtime, and it paid out 856 hours of overtime in the most recent two-week pay period.
At the current rate, the city would end up spending more than $720,000 on overtime for the fiscal year.
"The last two-week pay period was borderline obscene, and we're only one month into our budget," the mayor said. "In that two-week time period, there were no fires."
The closing of the Abbott Road station was not permanent, and its reopening will be determined on a shift-by-shift basis, Britton said.
"When the firemen decide to come to work, then we reopen the fire hall," he said. "We have a tight budget, and it's only going to get tighter, and everybody has to realize things have to change. . The city can't afford 856 hours of overtime every two weeks."
But firefighters contended that closing the fire hall wasn't the answer to the overtime issue.
"Obviously, we're not in agreement with that because it raises the response time in, it could be, every part of the city," Lt. James J. Fino said. "And we're short on manpower as it is."
Fino acknowledged that overtime in the department has "been a problem for some time." But, he said, the firefighters are being unfairly blamed for it, when city officials should be looking at themselves.
"We can't help the fact that guys get injured. We can't help the fact the city doesn't replace guys when they retire," Fino said.
The department has fewer firefighters handling the same workload that a larger department used to handle, and the chronic understaffing has led to more injuries, he added.
"Basically, 10 years ago, [city officials] said they'd rather pay the overtime than hire new guys," Fino said.
Britton said the closing of the station could affect response times in the city, but only minimally.
Stations have been closed temporarily in the past without problems, including most recently last December when a firehouse on South Park Avenue was shut down for more than a week for asbestos abatement, he added.
"It did touch on some response time, but our response time is still a lot better than in the surrounding communities," he said.
The city is due to get five new firefighters, who are currently in training. Four of those posts are being funded for two years with a federal grant from the Department of Homeland Security. The fifth firefighter will replace a recently retired firefighter.
City officials expect that the additional firefighters will help cut down on overtime. But Szymanski said the earliest that those savings will be realized is probably March, because the new firefighters will still be in training the next several months.
The overtime can't continue at its current pace, he said.
"We had to make an adjustment, and we had to make it quick," the mayor said.
The city does have the ability to permanently shut down a fire station and move to a seven-person complement, but Szymanski said he doesn't support that.
"I have zero intention of doing that," he said. "I just want this overtime to go away."