Lackawanna firefighters sounded the alarm Monday on a recent move by city officials to limit overtime expenses by temporarily shutting down one of the city's fire stations.
More than a dozen firefighters showed up in City Hall to protest the closure of the South Park station Sept. 6, when Mayor Geoffrey M. Szymanski instituted a policy limiting the call-in of off-duty firefighters on overtime pay to only instances in which regularly scheduled staffing levels fell below seven firefighters.
With just seven firefighters reporting, the city decided to shut down the station, because there wasn't enough staff available to man all of the trucks.
Not calling in more firefighters that day put the city in a "precarious position as far as public safety," said Capt. Tom Mendez.
Szymanski and Public Safety Director Dana J. Britton ordered the temporary closure as a way to rein in spiraling overtime costs.
In the first month of its 2012-13 fiscal year, the city spent $60,104 - or 20 percent of the amount allotted in the budget for the entire year - on firefighter overtime. The city paid out 856 hours of time-and-a-half pay in a recent two-week pay period.
But firefighters said they were being unfairly scapegoated for the large overtime tab, which they said is caused primarily by chronic understaffing in the department.
Firefighters calling in sick isn't the reason for the overtime, they maintained.
The department operates with three platoons of 10 firefighters and one platoon of nine firefighters, said Fire Chief Ralph J. Galanti. The platoons rotate with a schedule of 24 hours on, followed by 72 hours off.
But with four firefighters out with injuries, those platoons already are depleted.
Firefighters pointed out that August is the prime vacation time, and a state-mandated training program sent one officer to New York City for more than a month.
Eight-five percent of the overtime paid in the department is directly related to staffing, to firefighters being out injured and to ongoing training programs, said Mendez.
City officials changed course last week, going back to the old policy that allows for overtime call-ins when staffing dips below nine firefighters. But the move hasn't entirely diffused the anger of firefighters, who are in the third year of working without a new contract with the city.
Lackawanna is due to get five new firefighters, who are now 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.
The additional firefighters will cut down on overtime. ?But next spring might be the earliest that those savings ?will be realized, because the new firefighters will be in training for the next several months.
On Monday, the council voted unanimously to amend the budget to add another two firefighters.
Those firefighters won't be able to enroll in a fire academy until later - forestalling their ability to man the fire trucks until well into 2013.
But Galanti said he should be able to use the two new hires immediately as dispatchers in the department's alarm room, freeing up veteran firefighters for the trucks.
Also Monday, the council voted 4-0 to appoint Joseph Jerge as 3rd Ward councilman through the end of 2012, filling a vacancy created in July when Francis J. Kulczyk died.
Jerge, who owns Mulberry Cafe, a popular Italian restaurant in the city's Bethlehem Park neighborhood, said it was important to have a business owner's perspective on the council.
He also pledged to make city government proactive, rather than reactive, to issues.
Jerge was sworn in immediately after the meeting and will take the council seat at the next meeting Oct. 1.