A page from the handwritten log kept by the Port Chester professional firefighters from May 2013 shows that the night shifts were covered. Several pages of the log were supplied by the village manager to Westmore News in rebuttal to last week’s article.
A page from the handwritten log kept by the Port Chester professional firefighters from May 2013 shows that the night shifts were covered. Several pages of the log were supplied by the village manager to Westmore News in rebuttal to last week’s article.
A Port Chester professional firefighter staffed the Rye Brook firehouse every night in 2013, village officials ascertained after consulting overtime records and a handwritten log kept by the firefighters. Despite the name, attendance charts that showed 30 or so nights without coverage do not accurately portray who worked which shift.

After requests made under the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) for attendance records of all paid firefighters showing the hours and days they worked, the village provided a schedule and the attendance charts. According to those documents, there were 33 night shifts without a professional firefighter on duty. Last week's article said 29, but there were actually four other times that were not taken into account as they were on the attendance chart for the last week of 2012 and first week of 2013. The rest of the records showing attendance-the overtime forms and firefighters' log-were not provided and have still not been turned over in full.

Partial documents do appear to show that the overwhelming majority of the nights in question were covered by a firefighter working overtime. In total, the paid firefighters racked up 406 overtime hours, which are paid at time and a half, in order to guarantee someone on duty in Rye Brook at night.

So far the accrued overtime falls within the amount budgeted and it does not appear that it will exceed that figure by the end of the fiscal year on May 31, Port Chester Village Manager Chris Steers said on Tuesday, Mar. 18.

Overtime should be worked rarely, according to the contract between the village and the Port Chester Professional Fire Fighters Association, and not be a commonplace occurrence. Barring illness or a major fire or catastrophe, it should not be necessary.

The initial schedule usually staffs two firefighters for each shift. While some of the necessary fill-ins were caused by a firefighter calling in a sick day when the other person initially scheduled to work had time off, overtime was also used as a stopgap for instances when personal days, holidays and vacations overlapped.

Using overtime in such a manner is something that Steers hopes to ameliorate. "The key to doing it will be proper staffing levels. That's key," he said.

With the long-term goal of bringing that number back up to 12 firefighters, Steers plans to pursue the hiring of two in the near future. Currently there are nine and another planning to retire in July. "In the interim as we continue to move forward with the labor management talks and negotiations, we'll continue to minimize the use of overtime," he said. The contract between the two parties expired in May 2012 and conversations about a new one finally started last July.

Organizing coverage

Occasionally, the records show that the coverage shortage at night came about when someone became ill while the other person initially scheduled to work was given time off. Yet, many of the days do not fit that scenario and instead appear to be the result of personal days, holidays and vacations overlapping, which is not supposed to occur. On a few rare instances, no one was on the original attendance chart at all. This, Steers said, was "probably an anomaly" that occurred during the processing.

Organizing the firefighters falls predominantly on the shoulders of the fire clerk, a career firefighter who is appointed by the village. The position is currently filled by Sahnjai Karnsomtob.

The department clerk, who earns a $2,000 stipend, prepares the initial schedule and also provides the attendance sheets, which are signed off on by the fire chief before they are sent to the village's finance office for payroll purposes. At some point during the process, changes do occur. If there is enough notice, sometimes the men can trade days, which is called a "mutual." If this is not possible or there is insufficient time, that is where the overtime requests come into play.

"If someone's taking off and there's no one available on the regular shifts, someone has to be called in on overtime to cover," Steers said.

This assures that there is always someone on hand at the Rye Brook firehouse for 12 hours as per the fire service agreement between the two villages that garners Port Chester almost $1 million each year.

Room for improvement

The arrangement is far from simple.

"It's a lot of moving parts for certain," Steers said. "Is there room for improvement? Absolutely."

Steers is not, however, planning a top-down rearrangement. "It'd be presumptuous of me to think I can walk into the situation and make wholesale changes in a vacuum," he said. Any alterations would need to be the combined effort, he added, of the fire chiefs, volunteer firefighters, Port Chester Board of Trustees and village officials.

Anything of that nature would likely need to be negotiated with the union, he added.

"At the end of the day, everyone wants the same thing: a well-run combination department," the village manager said.

One smaller-and more manageable-modification may be cleaning up the scheduling process so that the attendance charts reflect the firefighters' true attendance.

"That's one of the things I want change, that's part of what we're discussing," Steers said. "The time sheets need to reflect what's actually happening. That will fix a lot of the confusion that's happening."