The Board of Aldermen voted Monday to pay Fire Chief James Larsen an extra $6,153 for doing double-duty as shift commander in the face of a staffing shortage.
In September, six of the city’s 28 firefighters were on medical leave. City Attorney Matt Bloomer said Thursday that as many as four of the department’s six officers were on leave at once, occasionally leaving a shift without an officer.
The department has three shifts, each consisting of seven firefighters, a lieutenant and a deputy chief. They work 24 hours on and 48 hours off. Typically, when an officer is missing, one fills in from another shift, but Bloomer said the sheer number of absences made that untenable.
“Chief Larsen himself was forced to work as a 24-hour shift commander several times in order to provide the city with an experienced shift commander at times when the other officers were either in need of rest or on their own leave,” Bloomer said. “From Sept. 18 to Nov. 8, the chief has worked 384 hours as a shift commander in addition to his 37.5 hours per week.”
Department heads in the city are salaried and generally not eligible for overtime. While the previous two chiefs’ contracts explicitly stated they were not eligible for overtime pay, Larsen’s contract, which sets his annual salary at $100,000, lacks such language. It does say the chief shall “devote the amount of time necessary to professionally, effectively and diligently discharge the Duties” and that the chief “may have to devote a great deal of time outside of the normal work week to properly discharge the Duties.”
Bloomer said Mayor David Allaire went to the board on the chief’s behalf, requesting that Larsen be “initially” compensated at his straight hourly rate for 120 of those additional hours.
Neither Larsen nor Allaire responded to inquiries Thursday.
“He’s worth every penny,” Alderman William Notte said, adding that Larsen had exceeded his duties and missed family events. “There’s work up there that needs to be done. The mayor, the chief and Board of Aldermen are on the same page. We have exactly the right person up there and he’s gone, for me, above and beyond.”
Notte said the departure of some senior firefighters had left enough in the salary line item to cover the $6,000, and the board had asked Allaire for estimates of any additional expenses expected in the coming months and the state of the salary line time.
Meanwhile, the city has approved separation agreements for two officers — Deputy Chief James Miles and Lt. Robert Miles. The deputy chief’s agreement uses accrued leave time to pay him for the shifts he would have worked from Oct. 28 through the end of the year. He also gets $37,945 for unused sick and vacation time, $6,000 a year for health insurance through 2029 and $25,000 in “additional consideration.”
Lt. Miles’ agreement gets him $27,805 for accrued sick and vacation time, $4,200 in “additional consideration” and health care coverage for up to two people under the department’s plan until he turns 65 — though he has to pay 20 percent of the premium.
Bloomer said three other firefighters remain on leave. The department has promoted one firefighter, Nate Elwert, to lieutenant and a substitute firefighter, Justin Henderson, to full-time. The department launched a program in September to help substitute firefighters get the certifications to become full-timers, and Bloomer said several more are expected to be ready to work shifts later this month.
Until then, he said, the count remains at 24 active firefighters of the 28 when the department is fully staffed.