Amsterdam restores six-firefighter minimum staffing levels

The exterior of the City of Amsterdam Public Safety Building, home to the City of Amsterdam Fire Department at 10 Guy Park Avenue in Amsterdam, is seen on Nov. 8, 2021.

The exterior of the City of Amsterdam Public Safety Building, home to the City of Amsterdam Fire Department at 10 Guy Park Avenue in Amsterdam, is seen on Nov. 8, 2021.

AMSTERDAM — Six-person minimum staffing levels at the Amsterdam Fire Department have been restored a month after the firefighter’s union called out manpower shortages that led to a pair of missed weekend calls.

After working a final weekend shift with just five firefighters on duty, union president Michael Demars said the six-person minimum was reinstated and in effect on Monday morning.

“We’re happy that’s behind us and that’s the last day we’ll have to deal with it,” Demars said.

Daily shifts at the fire department had been covered by just two units made up of five total firefighters under reduced minimum staffing levels implemented by former Mayor Michael Villa in 2017 after the city’s $8 million accumulated budget deficit was discovered. The department had previously been staffed with a minimum of three units each day made up of six firefighters.

The union pushed city officials following the reduction to reinstate the former six-person minimum staffing level at the fire department to ensure the safety of crew members and residents during the annual city budget process and past collective bargaining negotiations.

Demars brought the issue to the public in a social media post in November after limited staffing led the department to miss a pair of calls that were ultimately handled by the Greater Amsterdam Volunteer Ambulance Corps through mutual aid.

“It’s a good feeling to have staffing restored,” Demars said Monday. “It will help ensure our safety, improve our operability and help us handle the increasing call demand we have. It’s good for us and good for the residents in Amsterdam.”

Firefighters have been handling an increasing number of calls over the years, partially spurred on by the city’s introduction of an ambulance service operating out of the fire department. The new service was created as a new revenue source around the same time the minimum staffing reduction was implemented to reduce overall departmental costs.

Mayor Michael Cinquanti indicated on Monday that increased call volumes contributed to the decision and will allow the minimum staffing levels to be bumped back up to six.

“Call volume and revenues for the city’s ambulance service are up significantly so far this fiscal year,” Cinquanti said. “In 2021 we are on pace to increase call volume by almost 600 calls over 2020, a 21% increase over last year. The increase in ambulance calls has generated enough revenue to subsidize the overtime cost increase this move will generate.”

The city’s ambulance service is on pace to generate approximately $700,000 in revenue this fiscal year, more than covering the department’s budget of about $550,000. Cinquanti estimated increasing the minimum staffing levels will cost the city between $30,000 and $45,000 by the end of the current fiscal year in June. The manpower increase is expected to cost around $65,000 to $95,000 next fiscal year.

At the same time, beefing up minimum staffing levels will boost the city’s earning potential through the ambulance service by ensuring an adequate call response. The city was awarded $1.6 million in grant funds from the state Financial Reconstruction Board last month with about $200,000 of that funding to be used to purchase an additional ambulance.

“Having this second ambulance available for use as [Fire Chief Anthony Agresta] sees fit to use it will certainly help maintain the ambulance revenue level the city will need to continue to subsidize the six-man staffing,” Cinquanti said.

The city expects to receive the state funding for the ambulance in the spring. In the meantime, the city will outfit the used ambulance it rented and subsequently purchased earlier this year when the existing ambulance was temporarily out of service.

“Having it available for additional calls on an as-needed basis will certainly help us generate revenue we cannot hope to make with just one ambulance. I’ve given the fire chief sole authority to decide when the second ambulance will be called into use initially, with the one caveat being he will only do so when it can be done without requiring additional firefighters,” Cinquanti said.

“We won’t actually purchase a second new ambulance until we’ve operated under this new staffing and equipment model for a while and had the opportunity to fully test out our assumptions,” he added.

To further ensure the sustainability of the restored minimum staffing levels, Cinquanti plans to work with Agresta, the fire union and the Common Council to address the circumstances that frequently result in just the minimum number of firefighters reporting for shifts.

Normal shifts at the fire department should actually be staffed by eight firefighters, but vacancies, vacations, leaves for injuries, illnesses and other factors have generally left the department short staffed. When the full staffing complement is unavailable, the city will only call in enough employees to get to the minimum requirement.

Cinquanti pointed to the restored minimum staffing levels as responsibly providing a critical service for residents while ensuring the safety of firefighters, saying the city will continue to review the situation and costs associated with staffing levels at the department moving forward.

“Our firefighters do difficult and dangerous jobs for the people of this city. Jobs that carry a lot of responsibility. So I feel really good that this important concern about their safety and the safety of our citizens is being addressed,” Cinquanti said.

The city’s decision, Demars said, will ensure the safety of crew members while responding to structure fires, contribute to operating efficiencies and better position the department staffed with cross-trained paramedics and EMTs to handle ambulance calls. After publicly airing the fire union’s concerns, he indicated it was only fair to give city officials their due credit for supporting the department.

“We thank the mayor for being responsive to our concerns and appreciate that he has made the decision to restore our staffing,” Demars said. “We certainly could always use more than six people, by no means is it a luxury, but for the financial shape Amsterdam is in, this is the best we can hope for under these conditions right now.”

Reach Ashley Onyon at [email protected] or @AshleyOnyon on Twitter.

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