Fire Chief Robert Czerwinski, left, with three new recruits in 2017.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The Fire Department is in the midst of a hiring spree.
In the last three years, the department had 28 new hires and at least three more are expected by the end of the year.
But, it isn't boosting staffing numbers. It is mostly driven by retirements and a cycle stemming from the state's adoption of Proposition 2 1/2.
"We're at that point in time where 30 years ago Proposition 2 1/2 came in and at that time there were a lot of cuts, rollbacks, and layoffs. A lot of departments were decimated. Shortly after '85, '86, '87, they started to figure out where the money was coming from and they started hiring," Fire Chief Robert Czerwinski said.
"You can see that in the numbers we are dealing with. In 2012, 2013, we didn't hire anybody at all. Then all of a sudden in 14, those numbers started picking up again."
The department hired three new firefighters in 2014; six in 2015, and then nine in 2016. The city won a federal Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response Grant (SAFER) in 2017 to pay the salary and benefits for eight additional firefighters. The department had six other retirements that year and hired six replacements, bringing the total hires in 2017 to 14.
Already in this fiscal year, the department hired five new firefighters and Czerwinski said there are three retirements scheduled by the end of the year. In total by the end of the fiscal year, he expects six or seven total retirements bringing the total 2018 hiring numbers again into double digits.
"It is the nature of the cycle. As people get hired and if most of them stay to get their full pension benefit, they stay 32 years," Czerwinski said.
So the hires haven't really moved the total staffing levels much because most of those hires are replacing retirees. Czerwinski said there are a total of 95 employees but once you take out inspectors, command staff, and firefighters out on sick or injured on duty leave, there are less than 90. At the moment there are about 14 firefighters out and again the department is at minimum manning levels.
"That drives up our overtime because once somebody takes a vacation day or calls out sick, has a bereavement day, in order to keep our minimum of 18 we have to hire overtime," Czerwinski said.
Czerwinski said the eight new hires with the SAFER grant brought the department up to having 22 people per group. But at the minimum, there are only 18. Last year, the department was able to significantly reduce its overtime numbers because of the additional help.
The City Council will be faced with a decision next budget. The SAFER grant expires and the council will be asked whether it will continue to keep those firefighters or make reductions.
"I'm hoping they do [keep them on]," Czerwinski said of that decision.
Czerwinski makes the case not just because of the overtime numbers but because of the value in the Fire Department. He said the department is just 4.37 percent of the city's total budget. The average single-family home is $181,000 resulting in a tax bill of $3,633. Four percent of that bill is $158 a year, or as Czerwinski said, 45 cents a day.
"That is what you are paying a year to have protection around the clock, 24/7," Czerwinski said.
He added that the call volume has dramatically jumped over time. The firefighters are handling more and more every day - from medical calls to car accidents to overdoses to fires.
"In 1978, the Fire Department responded to 3,300 and something calls but they had 157 men on the Fire Department. Here were are 40 years later, we are doing double the volume of calls with two-thirds the number of people," Czerwinski said.
When it comes to injured and sick leave, there is a large unknown pending. In July, Gov. Charlie Baker signed a law designating cancer as a work-related injury for firefighters. That gives firefighters full injured on duty and retirement benefits. Czerwinski doesn't know exactly what that will mean for his department in the future.
"We like to think over the last three or four years we've gotten better at cancer prevention in requiring our people to wear self-contained breathing apparatus and decontamination on the scene. We now carry special wipes to get grime off of us," Czerwinski said.
President Donald Trump also signed a law that creates a voluntary registry for cancer allowing the U.S. Centers for Disease Control to possibly track what type of exposures are causing cancer. That information could help departments go a step forward in prevention.
Pittsfield already has three employees out on cancer leave and Czerwinski said he expects that to grow.
One byproduct of the city hiring so many new firefighters is the impact it has on the local volunteer departments. Dalton, Lenox, Lanesborough, and others have all lost a number of their top firefighters in the last two years to Pittsfield.
"They all want to be professional firemen," Lanesborough Chief Charlie Durfee said. "These guys love to do it and they get the opportunity to do it full time."
Lanesborough not only lost a number of firefighters in the last two years, but it also lost emergency medical technicians at a time when finding volunteers for that is difficult. Durfee looked through Pittsfield's roster and said 23 of the current firefighters there were once in Lanesborough.
"It sucks but you just keep hoping you'll hang on to one or two," Durfee said. "I'm always looking for volunteers and definitely looking for EMTs."
Dalton has also been particularly hit by the recent hirings as well but Chief Gerald Cahalan was unavailable for comment.
Despite paying for training and working with these firefighters for years, Durfee said he or the other chiefs aren't likely to hold it against Pittsfield for recruiting from their ranks. Durfee said he is happy for his volunteers when they get to turn their passion for firefighting into a full-time gig.
"They're following their dreams," Durfee said. "I'm going to support them 100 percent."
Czerwinski said it is nice that the new hires come with experience, but that doesn't give them any leg up when joining Pittsfield.
"Over the last number of years we've been getting a lot of people with previous experience because they served in the volunteer service," Czerwinski said. "We send everybody, it doesn't matter what their experience is, everybody goes through our own training."
He said about half of the new hires come from volunteer services. They all go through the same training and the same process. Czerwinski said it is a little easier for volunteers to transition to doing it full time because they know what to expect.
"Everybody thinks fighting fires is like a campfire in the back yard, they can pull out the garden hose and put it out. That is fine and good for a campfire but what if it is in an enclosed building, what if it is in a large building, a big box store, what if it is in a high rise building?" Czerwinski said. "How do we fight those? We fight every fire differently."
Czerwinski said the department hired one individual who was already trained at Firefighter Level 1 and 2 but is being sent back to firefighting school. Meanwhile, the city also hired an electrician who will follow the same path.
"Coming in with a little bit of experience they at least know what to expect when they get here, it is just at a much greater volume and intensity of calls versus what they get as a volunteer," the fire chief said.
The experience doesn't, however, give these volunteer firefighters a leg up on getting hired. The city is a Civil Service department and whoever scores the highest on the written and physical exams get hiring preference.
"The Civil Service test is a number of different things. It is not really a lot of firefighting questions, it is more common sense and mechanical-aptitude type questions," Czerwinski said.
Durfee said he's had volunteers who have taken the exam multiple times because they're so dedicated to doing it full time. In the past, only one or two, sometimes zero, volunteers from his department were hired by Pittsfield. But, with the hiring boom going on now, he's lost a bunch more.
iBerkshires.com welcomes critical, respectful dialogue; please keep comments focused on the issues and not on personalities. Profanity, obscenity, racist language and harassment are not allowed. iBerkshires reserves the right to ban commenters or remove commenting on any article at any time. Concerns may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
iBerkshires.com welcomes critical, respectful dialogue. Name-calling, personal attacks, libel, slander or foul language is not allowed. All comments are reviewed before posting and will be deleted or edited as necessary.
Pittsfield Community Development Approves Two Marijuana Cultivator Site Plans
By Jack GuerinoiBerkshires Staff
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The Community Development Board approved two site plans Tuesday for marijuana cultivation establishments.
The first site plan is from J-BAM LLC that wants to open an indoor cultivation facility at 71 Downing Parkway, the former Coca-Cola warehouse.
"Basically the marijuana will be cultivated in modules, which will be manufactured off-site and brought to the facility," Sarah Gapinksi of SK Design Group, said. "It will be a hydroponic grow operation."
Gapinksi said J-BAM only looks to use 16,000 square feet of the 20,000 square-foot structure. The current owner of the building will maintain 4,000 square feet for its own use.
Four names will be on the preliminary ballot but only three candidates showed for the debate held by the Pittsfield Gazette and hosted at Berkshire Community College. The moderator was radio host Larry Kratka and Pittsfield Community Television aired the event.
click for more
City Council President Peter Marchetti feels he's brought "professional leadership" to the city and he wants to continue doing so.
Marchetti is again seeking re-election to the council - it'll be his ninth campaign for council and 10th for elected office - in the last two decades. He's had what... click for more
At a ward meeting, Helen Moon was elated to see a young woman in her 20s take a seat in the audience.
At ward meetings and at the polls, it is often the same group of people making their voices heard. But this woman wasn't someone Moon had heard much from in the past so it made her happy to see... click for more
The program is intended to provide coaching and mentorship to help young people take the first step in their careers. It has been ongoing in Pittsfield for 15 years, and for the last six Guardian Life Insurance has contributed.
click for more