The injury bug has nipped the Oak Park Fire Department hard in 2010, as eight firefighters have spent time on injured leave, a number that the chief says is unusually high. Only one of the ailments was sustained while on the job, but all eight are collecting their salary while off duty.

The staffing shortage has forced Oak Park to dig deep into its overtime allowance, already spending the $200,000 it budgeted for firefighters this year, with more than three months left to cover. But officials say they have a federal grant lined up that will allow the department to bring aboard two new firefighters.

“We’re just trying to hold our own pretty much,” said Fire Chief Tom Ebsen. “And that’s why we’re so happy to get this grant, because it does give us the opportunity to hire two new people, who we otherwise would not be in the position to hire.”

Out of a department of 59, eight firefighters have been placed on “extended sick accident” this year, according to a memo Ebsen gave to the village board last week. In most years, he said, only a couple of firefighters go out on extended leave.

Oak Park has declined to give the names of the individuals, or the nature of their injuries, citing the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (or “HIPAA”), which protects private health information of workers. But according to the memo, the firefighters have been off duty from anywhere between two weeks to one year. One of the ailments was sustained while on duty, while the other seven occurred during off hours. Ebsen told trustees last week that many of the injuries were accidents, such as while moving furniture, and one was a burnt hand that a firefighter sustained during a “side job.”

Though most happened off duty, the firefighters accrued enough paid sick days through their “generous contracts” to be able to stay at home while still receiving a paycheck, Ebsen said. So far this year, Oak Park has paid $202,409.23 in salary costs for firefighters that are out sick, according to Chief Financial Officer Craig Lesner. The figure also includes sick days outside of the eight firemen who have been out on extended leave.

“It’s been extraordinary; I’ve never seen anything like this in the time that I’ve been here,” the chief told trustees last week.

Oak Park’s Fire Department might have been able to live with the shortage, Ebsen said, but its workforce has shrunk over recent years. Shifts previously had 21 firefighters on duty. That number was reduced to 19 last year. The minimum needed is 14 for each shift. Overall staffing at the fire department has dropped from 70 to 59 in the past 18 months.

“We lost any buffer we might have for anyone that calls in sick,” Ebsen said.

Five firefighters were laid off a year ago, which officials at the time said was to trim expenses in a poor economy, while also responding to increasing pension costs. All five, however, have been rehired when senior members of the fire department have retired, Ebsen said. The department workforce has been reduced by 11 positions, however, through retirements and attrition.

Oak Park is receiving a SAFER (Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response) Grant from the federal government, allowing the community to hire two new firefighters. The $309,000 allocation is enough to cover two year’s salary and benefits for the new firemen, who will likely be hired in January. By then, Ebsen said, Oak Park expects that senior firemen will have retired, allowing village hall to absorb those costs.

The village had originally applied for and would have received about $900,000 from SAFER, enough to hire six firefighters. But it balked, worried that it wouldn’t be able to take on the costs after the two years ended.

“We just didn’t know what the economy was going to be like in two years, and we certainly didn’t want to be in the position where we hired six and had to lay off four because we couldn’t support them,” Ebsen said.

If the village ends up spending its entire overtime budget for the fire department before the end of the year, it will have to find savings elsewhere, Lesner said. Oak Park could still come in under budget, he emphasized, but Ebsen estimated the department would finish 2010 spending $250,000 on overtime.

Savings could come in the form of purchasing less office supplies, or using less discretionary overtime. Lesner offered a caveat – firefighters work 24 hours on and 48 hours off, and sick time accrues differently than other employees.

“For all intents and purposes, a firefighter is blind to what day of the week it is, because Saturday and Sunday don’t necessarily mean what Saturday and Sunday mean to your normal Joe,” he said.

Village Manager Tom Barwin says the village also hopes to save on future overtime by encouraging physical fitness in the fire department. They’ve undertaken initiatives such as starting an employee “wellness committee,” handing out pedometers, putting on annual walks for employees, and making fitness equipment available at all three fire halls.

“We want to be sure that folks are using them, staying in shape, and meeting their obligations to the community,” Barwin said.

CONTACT: mstempniak@wjinc.com

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