MANCHESTER, NH — Fire Chief Dan Goonan says he’s losing sleep over his current situation — he’s stuck between the rock of reality and a budgetary hard place. Due to an unprecedented increase in call outs, long-term sick leave and an increase in vacation and vacation buy-backs, Goonan has been burning through his $1.3 million annual overtime budget to fill shifts.
At the current rate of expenditure, Goonan says he will have spent about $600,000 —close to 50 percent of his allotted overtime budget, with nine months left to the fiscal year.
“It’s like a perfect storm, and one that’s difficult to weather,” says Goonan, who on Sunday announced staff reductions and equipment adjustments to provide coverage while stemming the flow of overtime dollars.
“The longer I wait the more I have to spend, the bigger hole I get into. I’m losing sleep over this, and not just for the safety of our citizens but the safety of my guys,” Goonan says. “This is not ideal and not a pleasant thing do to. I’m the department head, and I know I will get criticized either way. I’ve tried to balance everything in making these decisions; they’re very difficult. I’ve had a lot of sleepless nights but I don’t want to have layoffs.”
Goonan said he hired 50 total shifts for coverage on Friday and Saturday, something he can’t recall ever having to do before, to fill shifts for about 30 percent of his usual staff. Normally, he gets one or two weekend sick calls, depending on the time of year.
Compared to the same time last year, the numbers are way off, Goonan says.
“The big months for overtime are July and August, so I normally cut way back in September and it starts evening out,” he says. “This year we’ve seen only an increase in OT spending.”
According to a memo sent to city leaders by Goonan regarding the staffing adjustments, Goonan was able to cover all open positions by reducing staff of most of the four-man companies to three.
He also moved Rescue 1 from its centralized downtown position to Station 9, and Engine 7 was moved to cover other vacancies, representing a 20 percent reduction in engines.
When asked, city firefighter Robert Stemska, vice president of IAFF Local 856, said on Sunday that the increase in call outs is not a sanctioned job action, adding that union leadership would never tell members to call out sick.
“What I can say is it most likely is a morale issue — we have members dealing with post-traumatic stress, and our call volume has increased dramatically over the last few years,” says Stemska. “It takes a toll.”
However, the InkLink late Sunday obtained a memo sent by Stemska to the union membership after this story was posted, which suggests organized internal pressure from the union on Goonan:
“Today has been a busy day for the Leadership. We have fielded many calls and text on this Sunday. Let me just say, the machine is working. Our Chief has been forced to make changes to manpower that are far less than ideal…”
City firefighters have been working for 450 days without a contract, and negotiations continue after Mayor Joyce Craig on Sept. 4 cast the tie-breaking vote during a Board of Aldermen meeting resulting rejection of a contract proposal put forth by the firefighters union.
Craig on Sunday said she has been in constant contact with Goonan in recent weeks regarding his budgetary concerns, and continues to do so on a daily basis.
“This isn’t what anyone wants,” says Craig. “This is all an unfortunate situation, but I fully support what Chief Goonan is doing — he’s forced to look at ways to save money, but at the same time keeping the safety of the community and firefighters in mind.”
She said Goonan has taken the lead in resolving his current budgetary crisis, and is interacting directly with members of the board of aldermen.
“This is something we’re being forced to do, and it doesn’t make Chief Goonan feel good, and it doesn’t make me feel good,” Craig says. “From a contract perspective, I do feel we’re very close, so we’re very hopeful.”
Goonan also feels optimistic that a contract agreement will soon be reached.
Stemska said on behalf of the union, current morale and the everyday stresses of being a city firefighter are likely contributing to a bump in sick days and longer-term sick leave.
“There are growing health issues around our profession. The International Association of Fire Fighters has been putting information out there about the suicide rate among firefighters, which I think is comparable to police around the country now,” Stemska said.
“And I can speak from my own experience. On a personal note, I lost my father somewhat abruptly, and that is a traumatic thing. We all have things in our own lives to deal with, but then, as a firefighter you return to work and your job is to be there for a stranger who is losing their mother, father, child, and you’re supposed to be the strong one — that’s why they call 911, for that support system,” Stemska says.
“In any given week you could have five calls that would be considered traumatic incidents by the general public, and it’s something a firefighter may have to deal with numerous time throughout one shift,” Stemska says. “We’re not just putting out fires anymore.”
When asked about Stemska’s take on the impact of PTSD or firefighters, Goonan responded,” If PTSD was such an issue with my firefighters I would hope the union leadership would tell me what they are seeing, and I would certainly do my best to address this issue.”
Stemska also expressed general disappointment from a union standpoint in the city’s decision-making of late.
“All throughout negotiations the one thing we’ve been asking for is some trust out of City Hall, some honesty,” says Stemska.
“When the board and the mayor can allocate hundreds of thousands out of contingency to basically tear down infrastructure in the city — the skatepark, for instance, something they spent more than $300,000 on several years ago and now they want to spend $200,000 to tear it down,” Stemska says.
“It’s a problem area, I understand that more than anybody. If it’s a place where the bad seeds are hanging out, something needs to be done. But to allocate that money when it’s going to be 20 degrees out in 60 days — I don’t think that park will be that flooded with people, that’s my own opinion, and I don’t think anyone will be there over the winter months. That money could be better spent,” Stemska says. “They’re so quick to spend money out of contingency before settling a contract with firefighters — or teachers, for that matter.”
Editor’s Note: Additions to the original story were made after it was posted as additional information became available.