Lexington council moves to end fire station brownouts on April 1

bfortune@herald-leader.comMarch 21, 2013 

The Lexington Fire Department will end brownouts April 1 and the city will hire 65 firefighters under action taken by the Urban County Council on Thursday night.

The council gave initial approval to spending $640,000 through June 30, the end of fiscal 2013, to pay overtime until more firefighters can be hired and trained. An ordinance to spend city money needs two public readings, so final approval will come at the council's next meeting, on April 11.

"Our guidance from the administration and from what we're hearing from council is to start using this $640,000 starting April 1 to eliminate brownouts," said assistant fire chief Harold Hoskins, chief of operations.

The city began "browning out" fire companies — taking them out of service for several hours or an entire day — in 2008 because of budget and staffing shortages. Brownouts were intended to eliminate skyrocketing overtime costs. The $640,000 approved Thursday was left over from fiscal 2012, said Bill O'Mara, commissioner of finance.

At the council's Budget and Finance Committee meeting on Tuesday, Councilwoman Jennifer Mossotti made the motion to appropriate money for overtime to staff fire engines and stations until two classes of recruits could be trained to fill those jobs. On Tuesday the council approved a list of 65 recruits.

A class of 35 will start training May 6 and graduate in mid-August. Money to pay for the class will come from a federal Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response, or SAFER, grant, in addition to money already in the fire department's budget.

Money for a July class of 30 firefighters, who will graduate in mid-November, will have to come from the fire department's 2014 personnel budget, Hoskins said.

The department will be short-staffed until both recruit classes graduate, he said.

"Once we get those 65 people trained, we will have enough staff so we will have zero overtime and zero brownouts," Hoskins said.

Lexington now has 496 firefighters. In the future, an increase in the fire department's personnel budget will be necessary to maintain the department at its full, authorized strength of 557 firefighters, Hoskins said.

"I'm happy that the city's financial health has improved so we can take these measures to eliminate brownouts," he said.

Fire department overtime from July 1 to the end of November — about $400,000 — will have to be appropriated from the 2014 budget, O'Mara said.

Beverly Fortune: (859) 231-3251. Twitter: @BFortune2010

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