, Gloucester, MA

July 1, 2013

Editorial: City can no longer gamble with safety through closed stations

Gloucester Daily Times

---- — Thankfully, Lanesville resident Robert Jobe is safely recovering from the heart attack he suffered the night of Sunday, June 23.

But it’s understandable that it was “one scary night,” as Barbara Jobe put it, for both her and her husband, not only in dealing at the time with his condition, which grew more serious with each passing minute, but in waiting out what must have seemed an eternity for the Gloucester Fire Department’s ambulance to arrive.

It wasn’t an eternity, of course; it was 12 minutes. And that response time — twice the 6-minute time the city claims it can reach more than 75 percent of the time — was hardly the fault of the Fire Department’s paramedics and crew.

It was prompted instead by a very conscious roll of the dice by Mayor Carolyn Kirk and approved by the City Council — the decision to fund the Fire Department in the fiscal 2014 budget in a way that fails to provide for the consistent operation of the Bay View Fire Station, which sits roughly a mile from the Jobes’ home.

While the station was open earlier that day, it was closed for the night shift, as it often remained through the final few weeks of the 2013 fiscal year that ended yesterday. While a new city contract with its firefighters is in place, the scheduling provisions that will finally address this six-year problem do not take effect until a year from today. And the Jobes’ case spotlights just how unacceptable that has become.

Thankfully, City Councilors, Bruce Tobey, Greg Verga, Melissa Cox and Council President Jackie Hardy and likely some others recognize that. They’re set to hold a Tuesday meeting to revisit the Fire Department funding situation, with an eye toward directing more money to secure at least the 24/7 opening of Bay View, and perhaps of the Magnolia station as well.

That, of course, isn’t easy. The firefighters’ contract, despite minimum manning standards, still sets the department’s structure at four teams of 18 firefighters each — and means that even one absence due to vacation, sickness or for other reasons mandates the closing of Magnolia, with a drop to 15 available firefighters forcing a Bay View closure as well. The only practical means of keeping those stations open would be to hire still more firefighters than the current 72-member roster, or bring in current firefighters on overtime to fill in the absentee spots.

That is an extremely costly and inefficient system — as the mayor and Chief Eric Smith know. That’s why the new contract provides for much more depth by consolidating the 72 firefighters into three rotating shifts, with more hours per week but with a lot more flexibility that will keep all four stations open and significantly rein in any overtime costs at all. But while we have hailed the mayor, the chief and the union for agreeing to that solution, we also noted that it’s unfortunate those provisions are still a year away. And the response to the Jobes’ emergency shows that can no longer be the case.

There have been times when Gloucester faced dire budget constraints, and Mayor Kirk was right in resisting the urge to throw more and more money into the financial black hole that Fire Department overtime had become. But when the city can ring up a $4.8 million surplus revenue figure — as it did for fiscal 2012 — and with beach revenues for the just-closed fiscal year running more than $100,000 ahead of the previous year despite a slow start to the current beach season — it’s clear that the mayor’s spending plan has under-budgeted revenues. That’s money withheld from services — in this case, stashed away while gambling that the closed stations will not threaten public safety.

It would be nice if, in the aftermath of the Jobes’ case, city and fire union officials were able to tweak the new contract and move up the turnover time for the new shifts to Jan. 1. But failing that – or even with that — it’s essential that the council and mayor utilize the city’s remaining free cash surplus to cover the costs of keeping at least Bay View open on a full-time basis until the new department structure kicks in, and to provide more openings for Magnolia station as well.

City taxpayers should not have to endure the kind of “scary night” the Jobes encountered the night of June 23 — they should not wonder have to ask, as Robert Jobe did, “Where ARE they?” when every response minute counts.

A true solution is coming a year from today. But another 12-month roll of the dice is a gamble the city cannot take.