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.
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Wally the Stegosaurus Returns to Berkshire Museum
By Brittany PolitoiBerkshires Staff
The fiberglass dinosaur was refurbished by the studio that created him more than 50 years ago. See more photos here.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — He's large, he's prehistoric, and he is back home at the Berkshire Museum.
Wally the 1,200-pound, life-sized fiberglass Stegosaurus was crane-lifted to the museum's lawn on Monday after a yearlong hiatus for some rest and recuperation. During this time, he received a full inspection, tail restoration, surface crack repairs, and a new paint job.
The beloved Pittsfield hallmark of 24 years now sits on the left side of the museum's front lawn. He previously lived on the right side of the lawn.
"That's been our No. 1 question this whole time is 'Where's Wally?'" the museum's marketing and brand manager Kimberly Donoughe said. "Everybody wants to know where Wally is."
In April 2020, he made the journey back to his birthplace — Louis Paul Jonas Studios — down Route 7 South through Pittsfield, Lenox, Stockbridge, and Great Barrington before crossing the border to New York. The museum published Wally's route and estimated travel times so that fans could get a glimpse of the local celebrity in his travels.
A 2020 report issued by State Auditor Suzanne Bump revealed that the commonwealth's payments in lieu of taxes (PILOT) program for state-owned lands (SOL) is underfunded and negatively affects smaller rural communities in Western Mass compared to larger, wealthier communities in the eastern part of... click for more