The Worcester (MA) Fire Department is forgoing a firefighter recruit academy this year, but Chief Michael Lavoie told the City Council this week residents should not notice any major disruptions in service.
Lavoie explained to the council Tuesday that the two overriding factors were a relatively low number of positions that will need to be filled, and the need to a focus on officer training programs that would not be possible while a recruit academy is going on.
At-Large Councilor Kathleen M. Toomey said there were other factors, including the loss of a grant that partially funded the academy and a hiccup in the timing of last year’s civil service exam.
Toomey said she was disappointed to learn there will be no recruit class, and was concerned about the return of “brownouts”: shutting down engine companies for a shift due to a lack of staffing and redeploying firefighters to other stations.
Chief Lavoie said he was also disappointed that there won’t be a recruit academy, and noted that City Manager Edward M. Augustus Jr. assured him that even though the grant didn’t come through this year, the city would have budgeted for a recruit academy on its own.
The chief said the Fire Department staffing is currently at 397 employees. He said 409 would be a full complement. An additional 15 members are anticipated to retire this year, which would leave the department 27 members short of a full complement until the next recruit academy in spring 2022.
The staffing costs can be covered with overtime, Lavoie said. There will be some savings due to not having a recruit academy, but he estimated anywhere from $500,000 to $750,000 in overtime will be needed to keep stations fully staffed.
He said he was confident the department will be able to avoid brownouts. He said the last time there were brownouts in the city was in 2017, when staffing dipped to 381 members.
Lavoie said the relatively small projected class size made the prospect of a full academy less efficient than in previous years. A year off from the academy will give the department an opportunity to essentially train the trainers by investing in company officer and command-level training.
The focus on training will come in the same year the department expects the results of a “top-to-bottom” outside review of department policies and procedures currently underway. Lavoie and Augustus called for the review in the wake of the November 2019 death of Lt. Jason Menard in a fire on Stockholm Street. Menard was the ninth city firefighter in two decades to die in the line of duty. The city in the fall contracted with Emergency Services Consulting International to do the review.
Augustus said that review will hopefully have staffing recommendations that will inform future decisions. Lavoie said the officer training will have a positive impact.
“We need to set a new playbook,” Lavoie told the council. “Everybody needs to be working from the same playbook. We can add all the manpower we want, if we’re not on the same page, working from the same playbook, then it’s not going to work. So this is where our leadership training is coming in. It’s going to be a phenomenal year for the people that are on the department now, with the leadership training. It will carry us into the future, it’s a must-do.”
Lavoie said the renewed push for officer and command-level training will focus on three areas:
• A two-week officers academy will assign all officers to the department’s training division for eight shifts. The academy will address all core functions of engine and ladder company operations with the goal of increasing officers’ skill sets and standardizing department procedure.
• Command system training: Department officers are completing a 50-hour online command training course, which will culminate in a three-day, in-person command center training this spring, funded by a $330,000 Federal Emergency Management Agency grant.
• A standard operating guideline review will examine and revise all operational guidelines to ensure consistency, relevancy and alignment with current goals and objectives. Lavoie said this will ensure that command officers and company officers are operating in a standardized manner on the fire ground.
At-large Councilor Morris Bergman said he was concerned about unanticipated injuries or retirements that could push this year’s staffing numbers even lower, but he deferred to Lavoie on the call not to have the academy.
At-large Councilor Khrystian King asked why the department couldn’t run an academy and the officer training concurrently.
Augustus said the challenge is the capacity of the training division. To do all the background work and preparation and to run the academy, while at the same time undertaking the more aggressive leadership training Lavoie described, is just not feasible.