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Ottumwa City Council looks at expanding fire department staff

After a year and a half of greatly increased overtime and firefighters with burn out, the...
After a year and a half of greatly increased overtime and firefighters with burn out, the Ottumwa City Council is discussing bringing back three firefighters to offset costs and work strain.
Published: Dec. 1, 2021 at 5:04 PM CST
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OTTUMWA, Iowa (KYOU) - More firefighters could be in Ottumwa’s future. The City Council held a discussion Tuesday night on the understaffed Ottumwa fire department.

In the year and a half since six firefighters were let go, overtime at the department has exploded, injuries are up over 300%, and some firefighters say they’re struggling with mental health.

One firefighter, Josh Chance, spoke at the meeting about not being able to be part of his children’s activities. “When they come out and see I’m wearing my uniform - Dad’s not scheduled to work - they drop. That look on their face just about crushed you. Their body language just breaks my heart.” He also has noticed his mental health is dropping. “I’ve noticed myself more irritable. I have verbally snapped at my loved ones,” Chance explained. “And before I catch myself it’s already out of my mouth.”

The department has 24 firefighters, with three shifts of at least six firefighters. Fire Chief Tony Miller explains they have to call someone in almost every day. He says his crews are getting burned out. “Literally burned out. You can’t work 56 hours out of your normal shift and then work 30 or 40 hours over overtime every two week period. They are getting burnt out.”

As the City has more stable financial footing now compared to Fiscal Year 2020, the Council, Mayor, and City Staff discussed reopening the positions. To City Administrator Phil Rath, it’s something they need to resolve. “We see that there is a concern and an issue with staffing.”

Skyrocketing overtime might be one of the most pressing factors. Since losing 20% of firefighters, it has grown far beyond previous years. Each firefighter, on average, is working around 24 hours of overtime each month. The fire department has pulled in $117,852 in just four months, from July 2021 to October. The City estimates, at this pace, by the end of Fiscal Year 2022, overtime costs would be around $353,557.

Since the City currently has a budget surplus, staff say it’s better to spend those funds on positions instead of overtime. The assistant chief says firefighters want that as well. The City’s finance director estimates the cost of three firefighter salaries will be less than the current overtime costs.

The lengthy discussion at Tuesday night’s meeting was met with largely positive reception from council members. Council Member Marc Roe, who voted in favor of cutting the firefighters in 2020, says his decision then was “purely financial...but sometimes overtime becomes catastrophic. I think we’re at that point now.”

Council Member Matt Dalbey had a similar sentiment. He also voted in favor of the measure last year. “We need to make good on our commitment,” Dalbey explained. “Not only to the employees, but the taxpayers who supported that decision then.”

The Council’s newest member, Sandra Pope, liked the idea, too. “It’s better to have three than zero,” she said. “I think that’s a good middle point.”

Though Tuesday’s meeting was just a discussion without a vote, most at the meeting seemed to be on the same page - to lower the strain on Ottumwa’s firefighters. Chief Miller is optimistic. “Good things are coming, and once we get our three guys hired, things will be better.”

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