Chronic short-staffing problems that led to a one-year overtime bill of nearly $1 million for the Cayman Islands Fire Service still exist at the department, three years after government auditors identified the issue and managers promised to correct it.

Fire service representatives said Wednesday that there are plans to hire new recruits, as well as place current firefighters who qualify in higher-ranking positions, within the current government budget, which runs from this month until December 2017.

Fifteen new recruits will be hired following a recruitment process to begin this year. While that is under way, an internal promotion review will be undertaken to fill some long-vacant middle management roles, according to fire service human resources managers.

After the initial hiring process, the service plans to request funds be released for additional hiring of new recruits. The current government budget has “funded” a total of 33 currently vacant jobs within the fire service.

The internal audit unit review that first revealed problems with fire service staffing in 2013 showed 40 vacant positions out of a total 168 within the service. Essentially, the report stated that the fire service was running its standard operations while being down about one quarter of the staff it needed. Eighteen of the vacancies were in the line of duty within either aerodrome (airport) or domestic (land-based) fire services.

To fill the vacancies and continue to staff local fire stations around the clock, firefighters were continually brought in on overtime pay, leaving the government with a bill of between $500,000 and $1 million for overtime which the government was forced to pay in a lump sum during the 2013/14 budget year.

According to a 2015 review of the fire service done by U.K. consultants, many times, the firefighters staffing stations on overtime were not responding to calls during the period because none came in while they were working.

The consultant’s review stated that 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 (overtime) rates. Meanwhile, the fire service was making an average of just more than two calls per day.

As of Tuesday, the fire service reported total vacancies of 38, two fewer than it had during 2013. Twenty-three percent of the available positions remain vacant.

According to fire service managers, 33 of the 38 vacant jobs have been “funded” within the current 2016/17 budget. New recruits are expected to fill entry-level fire officer positions while more senior fire staff are moved up the ranks via the internal recruitment process.

The Cayman Islands government has budgeted to hire new firefighters in previous years, but has not done so.

The consultant review, done by U.K. Fire and Rescue Advisor Peter Holland, noted that volunteer firefighters could be used, as they are in the U.S. to some extent. Another option would be the U.K.-style use of “retained duty” (off duty) firefighters on an as-needed basis. Retained duty firefighters are staffed and trained to the same standard as other firefighters, but they’re only called in when emergencies dictate.

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, Mr. Holland said.

Ministry of Home Affairs officials have previously balked at the idea of a volunteer (unpaid) fire service, but indicated that government could consider a hybrid of the U.S. and U.K. systems.

If you value our service, if you have turned to us in the past few days or weeks for verified, factual updates, if you have watched our live streaming of press conferences or sent an article to a friend... please consider a donation. Quality local journalism was at risk before the coronavirus crisis. It is now deeply threatened. Even a small amount can go a long way to sustaining our mission of informing the public. We need our readers’ financial support now more than ever.