Firefighters may get more work
A fire department staff reduced in numbers but required to cover a more densely populated area has led to big payments for overtime and accrued vacation that must be paid by the government.
The Cayman Islands Fire Service has lost more than three dozen employees through attrition, including retirement, over the past three years, according to Acting Chief Fire Officer Rosworth McLaughlin. That has left fewer personnel to cover stations in George Town, West Bay and Frank Sound, in addition to aerodrome firefighting duties at the airport.
What has occurred over the years, according to fire officials, is that personnel were stretched too thin, accruing overtime pay and additional compensatory vacation time to cover staffing at the various stations. That’s now left the government with a bill of between $500,000 and $1 million in overtime or compensatory pay in the current financial year.
For 2013/14, the government budgeted about $6.1 million in 2013/14 for domestic fire services and an additional $4.4 million for aerodrome fire services.
“We’ve lost 40 individuals, but we’ve maintained or increased the level of … developed area the fire service is expected to respond to and increased the number of flights at our airports,” said Eric Bush, chief officer of the Ministry of Home Affairs, who has responsibility for overseeing Cayman’s public safety departments.
Whether or not there was a fire emergency, crews still had to staff the stations, leading to more firefighters working more hours at either regular rates or time-and-a-half rates. Meanwhile, the fire service was making an average of just more than two calls per day.
The local ambulance service made nearly 10 calls a day during the same period.
Mr. Bush said this led to a preliminary recommendation from U.K. advisers that fire crews receive certain medical training and be allowed to respond first to the scene of medical emergencies.
“That would undoubtedly save lives,” said Peter Holland, a firefighter with 42 years of experience who serves as chief fire and rescue adviser in the U.K. Mr. Holland and David Norris, a U.K.-based fire and rescue adviser, were invited to Cayman this month to assist in a review of the local fire service.
According to 911 statistics from the 2012/13 budget year, the Emergency Medical Services [ambulances] received 3,570 calls for service between July 1, 2012, and June 30, 2013. The fire service received 867 calls for service during the same period.
The Royal Cayman Islands Police Service was by far the busiest of the three major emergency services in the islands, receiving 25,901 calls for service during the 12-month period, with more than 7,500 of those calls resulting in “contact” between police and residents.
“This will increase the level of emergency response that the Cayman Islands government can provide, when minutes, even seconds matter,” Mr. Bush said.
Mr. Holland said additional training and support for the fire service would be needed to make such a change. “There would need to be an investment in defibrillators for fire stations and some training for fire crews,” he said.
Also, there is an issue of whether it would be advisable to use heavy fire trucks in a fast-response situation for medical calls. However, Mr. Holland said medical responses could be handled in smaller SUVs or even cars, depending on what was available to the fire service.
A full report from the U.K. advisers on the fire service is expected to be released later this year.
The government has budgeted to hire 26 new firefighters in the 2013/14 fiscal year. Mr. Holland also advised that options could be explored to beef up the service even further.
In the U.S., fire service volunteers are often used to supplement or even replace professional firefighters in smaller communities. In the U.K., Mr. Holland said, “retained duty” firefighters are used on an as-needed basis for the same functions.
The difference is that retained duty firefighters are professionally trained and paid, but they are called in [and paid] only when emergencies or staffing levels dictate.
“They’re trained to exactly the same standard as the full-time firefighters,” Mr. Holland said.
In some situations, Cayman could look at bringing in its current fire service staff for extra-time duty. “It ought to be quite attractive to local firefighters to earn more money” on a retained duty basis, he said.
Mr. Bush said it was unlikely that Cayman might move to an entirely volunteer [unpaid] fire service, but that the government would consider a “hybrid” of the U.S. and U.K. systems.
Another staffing problem for the Cayman Islands Fire Service was found in the area of building inspections.
The fire service currently has one safety inspector to cover all buildings in Grand Cayman, Cayman Brac and Little Cayman. Mr. Holland said this is obviously not sufficient.
At the same time, Mr. Holland said he was generally impressed with the standards of hotels and public buildings in Cayman. “The standards are, indeed, very good,” he said.
However, Cayman’s ongoing development plans would require more frequent fire safety inspections, and potentially another fire station in district of East End “to cover those areas that are expanding on the island,” Mr. Holland said.
The Health City Cayman Islands project is expected to open this month in East End. In addition, the Cayman Enterprise City office project is slated to be built in the Savannah area at some point.