BROOKSVILLE — During the last budget year, Hernando County Fire Rescue personnel clocked more than 1,000 shifts of overtime.
And while those shifts amounted to hundreds of thousands of dollars in payroll costs, the money isn't the only reason why fire officials are recommending a change that county commissioners will consider Tuesday.
Hernando County Fire Chief Mike Nickerson will recommend hiring six additional fire and rescue personnel and amending the department's 2009-10 budget to make that addition.
While the move may seem unusual at a time when the county is not even filling open positions, the plan is designed to save money.
Over the course of a full year, the new employees, filling in for fire and rescue workers on vacation or leave, could save the county an estimated $200,000. If approved and put in place Dec. 1, the change could save $166,100 by the end of the fiscal year Sept. 30, Nickerson estimates.
And while the move to cut overtime would take money from current employees, some of whom count on the extra pay when they fill in for employees who are away, one other factor is more important.
"Money is great. But when it comes to safety, that has to be our priority,'' said Jason Brazinski, president of the firefighters union.
For years, Brazinski and the firefighters have been concerned that some Hernando fire companies still run engines with just two firefighters. That's true for four of the county's eight trucks.
When an engine rolls up on a fire, a two-person crew can face a dilemma since only one is suited up and ready to enter a burning structure. Safety protocol dictates that firefighters should enter as a team.
Under the plan before commissioners Tuesday, the additional personnel would provide a third person on an engine when they weren't filling in for someone.
Brazinski said he will even push for the county to consider hiring nine new people rather than six because it would ensure even better coverage.
Hiring nine new additional people, however, would not provide the same amount of savings. Nickerson said he is recommending six because, with the next couple of budget years looking grim, he does not want to bring people on board who then might have to be let go.
Nickerson said the plan to add more personnel was something that came up as officials were negotiating the current labor contract with firefighters and while his department was preparing its budget.
Union officials, concerned about keeping wages as high as possible, looked at the large overtime bill and questioned whether it might be time to analyze what to do, and Nickerson agreed.
While the county had done an overtime analysis before, this time it was made simpler through a new computer program that keeps track of work schedules.
By looking at the actual work history of employees, officials were able to calculate the impact of adding three, six or nine employees, Nickerson explained.
"It was some very sound math,'' he said.
The savings come simply by filling work hours with lower-paid new personnel rather than paying time and a half for more senior employees.
With the ability of saving money and increasing safety, Nickerson said, "it's pretty hard to not like this plan.''
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1434.