WHITMAN — Fire Chief Timothy Grenno expressed concern to the Board of Selectmen on Tuesday, Dec. 15 about “the perfect storm brewing” around the impact of a firefighter’s job-related injury and the overall impact of COVID-19 on the department’s budget.
Grenno asked for the board’s discretion and advice on how they wished him to proceed with the budgeting issue, as he forecast that he is looking at another $40,000 to $50,000 in costs if the injured firefighter is out as long as doctors have suggested.
“It’s only going to get worse,” he predicted. “Over the last several years, we’ve trimmed our budgets, and trimmed our budgets to maintain what we can maintain.”
The firefighter may require surgery and will be out three to four months, Grenno said. One of the budget lines cut has been on the Injured on Duty (IOD) line.
Typically funded at $50,000 per year, it was funded at $20,000 for the current fiscal year and is now at -$1,534.
“I don’t have the budget money to continue to cover that person, which would result in me running short,” Grenno said. “We’re in the middle of a major pandemic — my guys are seeing COVID cases and suspected COVID cases everyday.”
The COVID ambulance has made 59 runs already, he said, noting the department runs six-person shifts generally because of the demand for service.
Board Chairman Dan Salvucci if there was any way funds could be transferred into the IOD account at the Wednesday, Jan. 27 special Town Meeting.
Interim Town Administrator Lisa Green said she has passed the issue to the town accountant so he could look at some different line items where money could be transferred. She expected a report by Wednesday, Dec. 16 and that he had already suggested the streetlights and non-mandated busing lines as possible sources. Articles will be added to the special Town Meeting warrant, Green said.
Grenno also expressed concern that the CARES Act funding source dries up Dec. 30 unless it is extended. The department has spent $48,000 in COVID-related overtime to date.
“If, on Dec. 31, I have a shift exposed and I have to quarantine guys for seven days or whatever, one shift is a little over $7,100, two shifts is $15,000, and that’s me,” he said, adding he was not sure about the Police Department’s overtime numbers. “If I start to lose people I don’t have the money to back-fill those shifts.”
He added that the fall COVID issues are “magnified by 300” over levels seen in the spring.
“My big concern is, next week is Christmas, and then we have New Years, and no one is sure what is going to go on after that, and if I lose a shift, we’re facing big problems,” Grenno said. “We don’t know what COVID is going to do to us this winter.”
He said the Board of Health also asked him to speak about their budget problems. One of the board’s temps is paid with CARES Act money and, if they don’t receive continued funding after Dec. 30, it will be “extremely difficult” to perform COVID recording and contact tracing.
Green said, unfortunately she sees no change coming in federal financial policy until the new administration takes office.
Selectman Randy LaMattina advocated developing a COVID line at the special Town Meeting to prevent continuing needs for transferring funds.
“I would hate to make a decision right now, that we’re going to decide that our Fire Department is going to ride short-shift during a pandemic,” LaMattina said. “That’s a Town Meeting decision.”
Salvucci agreed, saying left-over funds after the pandemic can be used to back-fill other accounts.
Green was asked to discuss such a line item on the special Town Meeting.
Grenno also offered more details about the town’s drive-through vaccination plans for Whitman Middle School, starting with the Phase 3 round of vaccines. The vaccinations would be for Whitman residents only, he said explaining that the Mass Dept. of Public Health as said each community will receive its own supply of vaccine.
He said the state reached out about an updated plan about a month ago because they do not want indoor vaccine operations.
“The plan has been updated and we’re good to go,” Grenno said. “We’re about to sign off on an agreement with Brockton Hospital, which is going to store the vaccine for us. … Everything is still up in the air on the vaccination program.”
He noted that DPH has not yet firmed up its dispersal plans outside of health care providers.
Pfizer’s vaccine must be stored at -86 F and can only be out of the freezer for two hours, limiting the number of doses available at a time and slowing the process, according to Grenno.
Johnson & Johnson is nearing the release of a vaccine that does not require storage at freezing temperatures.
“There’s a lot up in the air,” Grenno said. “Logistically, we’re set — we’re ready to go — if they came out tomorrow and said, ‘We want you to vaccinate your senior population in town, then we could do that, but I don’t expect to see that until probably late April or early May.”
Whitman already has 34 nurse volunteers signed up to administer the vaccine and firefighters are now in talks about their role. Whitman Fire has purchased 400 rapid tests and has contracted with Professional Ambulance in Cambridge to help with testing procedures and testing of town employees could begin next week, should any become exposed to COVID-19 and develop signs and symptoms.
Faster test results could reduce quarantine times and lower overtime costs, according to Grenno.