Anchorage Fire Department lays out plan to cut back on overtime

Anchorage Fire Chief Doug Schrage speaks to reporters at a Sep. 16, 2021 conference. (Wesley Early/Alaska Public Media)

The Anchorage Fire Department is moving forward with a plan to reduce overtime among its workers.

At a news conference Thursday, Anchorage Fire Chief Doug Schrage said the department’s overtime budget is roughly $3.5 million for the budget year that ends Dec. 31.

“To date, we’ve spent $3.2 million,” Schrage said. “We expect by the end of September we will have exhausted our overtime budget.”

Schrage said, ordinarily, the department uses most of its overtime to cover for firefighters taking leave. For the past two years, however, there’s been another problem to deal with. 

“My sense is that it’s worse this year because of the pandemic,” Schrage said.

He said at least nine firefighters had COVID-19 this week, with more in quarantine because they’re close contacts. 

Normally, he said, when overtime budgets run thin toward the end of the budget year, the department responds with rolling closures, impacting each of the municipality’s 13 firehouses equally. Now, he said, the closures will be based on call volume and community need.

“We think that a more rational approach is to more surgically close companies based on our ability to maintain our current response time standards,” Schrage said. 

A closure doesn’t mean a whole firehouse is shut down, but that some open positions in a shift may not be filled by another employee who’s on overtime.

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Schrage said staffing during the day, between 9 a.m. and 9 p.m., will remain unchanged during the cost-cutting process. Those hours are when most emergencies occur, said Schrage. 

The change in staffing will be in the overnight hours. 

Schrage said all firehouses will be staffed, but if there’s fewer staff on a shift, it may limit the amount of equipment that is available. He said the ability to maintain effective response times won’t change.

“We may close an engine and leave a truck in service at that station, or vice versa,” Schrage said. “We may take one of our ambulances out of service and leave the engine in service. We’ll maintain the capability to provide an immediate response to all areas of town.”

City officials estimate the fire department could save between $70,000 and $150,000 with the reduction in overtime. 

Schrage said the firehouse in Eagle River will not be impacted by closures since it’s more isolated than the other stations.

The changes will begin Oct. 1.

Mayor Dave Bronson praised the fire department’s plan to reduce overtime, describing it in a statement as “good example of showing the Municipality of Anchorage’s stewardship with the people’s tax dollars.”

“I am pleased that no services will be diminished, or station closures will happen,” he said.

The plan did draw criticism from at least two members of the Anchorage Assembly. Both Felix Rivera and Meg Zaletel, who represent Midtown Anchorage, described the reduction in overtime as concerning.

“Given the fact that our biggest hospital is rationing care, this gamble doesn’t make sense,” Rivera said in a statement.

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Wesley is a reporter for Alaska Public Media, covering primarily city government and Anchorage life. He previously worked at Alaska Public Media as a web editor, producer and education reporter before a two-year stint in Kotzebue, AK as News Director for KOTZ-AM.

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