Video: Mayor Jim Suttle provides financial options to help alleviate the budget shortfall
Twenty-four Omaha firefighters reported to duty Monday, not to a firehouse but to a classroom.
They are the first firefighters in the department to receive paramedic training while being completely detached from their usual firefighting shifts for a little over five months.
That means the Fire Department must replace them — and their instructors — during that time by paying overtime to other firefighters to fill in, city officials say.
The new training system is required under the fire contract approved in December.
Mayor Jim Suttle's staff told The World-Herald on Thursday that is one of the reasons the city faces a $7.3 million budget shortfall for 2013.
Fire Chief Mike McDonnell said the new plan is more costly.
“We are training more, faster,” McDonnell said. “Is there going to be a cost to it? Absolutely.”
Under the old contract, about 24 firefighters underwent paramedic training each year, and the training lasted only a portion of their 24-hour shifts.
McDonnell said that system was cost-neutral because the firefighters worked most of their shifts, and for the portion they were in class, other regularly scheduled firefighters could often fill in for them.
If managers needed to pay overtime for a fill-in, it was only for a portion of a shift.
The new contract calls for 48 firefighters a year to get paramedic training through most of the contract, which ends in 2014. Firefighters in training are in class 40 hours a week.
City officials said the new training provisions will cost more in overtime or require hiring more firefighters.
The Mayor's Office is expected to make a statement today about whether more firefighters will be needed.
Council members who negotiated the contract said in December that the new paramedic training plan would increase public safety.
City Councilwoman Jean Stothert, who led the negotiations and is running for mayor, said Thursday that she doesn't believe the city should have to increase spending to accommodate the contract.
She said the paramedic provision came out of a subcommittee during negotiations that was supposed to look at cost-neutral “operational issues.”
“To turn around and say we're going to have to hire more firemen to do this training is ludicrous,” she said. “It's Mike McDonnell's job to manage the budget, and if he can't do it, we need to find someone who can.”
If the city covers the training through overtime instead of additional hiring, the cost will be about $3 million, according to one Finance Department projection.
If the city decides to increase the number of firefighters, it will have to decide how many to hire. Since each paramedic class has five instructors, that means 29 firefighters will be involved in training for five months.
Hiring that many entry-level firefighters would cost less than paying experienced firefighters overtime — or time and a half — but it would represent a shift in policy.
In 2009, Suttle's administration decided to decrease the department's size. Through attrition, the department went from a budgeted allotment of 688 firefighters that year to less than 630 actual firefighters last year.
Stothert said the department could accommodate the new training requirement without hiring more personnel or paying overtime. Firefighters could forgo other optional training, she said, and instead work the vacant positions caused by paramedic trainees.
She said the city has long trained firefighters to respond to medical emergencies.
Dave Nabity, another candidate for mayor, said the council made a mistake by allowing paramedic training to be put into the contract. The council should have thoroughly vetted the contract's financial consequences, he said.
“There's no question you're either going to have overtime or you're going to have to hire new people to handle those shifts,” Nabity said. “The council's trying to justify what they did.”
Video: Mayor Jim Suttle offers financial options to the Omaha City Council.
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