Fire department still battling low staffing

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MATTOON, Ill. (WCIA) — The fire department is short nearly 10 people. They say that’s forcing some firefighters to work almost 100-hour weeks.

“It is unprecedented, where we’re at right now, especially with our manning being so low,” said Mattoon Firefighters Local 691 Union President Bart Owen. Mattoon firefighters haven’t had a contract since spring 2018. Owen says that’s the longest they’ve gone without one. He says they need to hire nine new people to get back to a full staff.

“We feel the city may be dragging their feet a little bit on this,” he added. However, some city leaders don’t feel that way. City Administrator Kyle Gill says they are trying to get the department up to 30 people, but they’re having trouble finding qualified applicants. Contractually, they have to hire firefighters who are also paramedics.

Owen says their low numbers don’t impact the services they provide, but it does mean a lot of overtime.

“When you get down as low as we are now, the cost savings isn’t there because the overtime is so exorbitant. If they would’ve hired 3 or 6 people and got closer to the contractual number of 30, the overtime would’ve been considerably less,” he said.

He says some firefighters are working 72 or even 96-hour weeks, instead of the usual 56 over the past two years. From May 2018 to May 2019, the city paid out $674,006 for fire department overtime. From May 2019 to May 2020, they paid $610,411. Those numbers are from the city’s budget website. Owen says he estimates that overtime since May 2020 to today has been about $240,000. Gill says the average firefighter wage plus benefits and pension is about $100,000 a year.

The city also did away with the ambulance services the department was offering, but the state labor relations board ruled against the city’s decision. The city plans to appeal that decision. That will likely extend the contract negotiations process for at least another six months to a year before that ruling gets adjudicated.

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