GROTON -- Last year, 33 firefighters with the Naval Submarine Base's fire department spent more time at work than they did at home -- a result of vacancies that went unfilled almost all year.
"It was a long year for everybody," John Dwire Jr., president of IAFF Local F219, said in a recent phone interview. "We didn't see a lot of our families."
The Groton base isn't the only one aching for fire department personnel. Security officers also are in short supply.
As of Jan. 4, the Navy had 229 full-time, civilian fire and emergency service position openings, and in the next few years expects to hire up to 723 civilian police officers for its installations across the U.S. and Guam.
Problems from a hiring backlog came to a head last year.
"Enough was enough" last fall, when Dwire reached out to the office of U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District.
"It's unfortunate," Dwire said, that it took reaching out to a congressman to get the firefighters "some relief."
Courtney's office brought the issue to the attention of Navy officials.
"The issue of overtime and the stress factor that they were feeling because of ... the dearth of hiring was something that clearly had reached a point where we felt it was time to go up the food chain and alert people," Courtney said. "At some point this really does become a public safety problem when people are working too many overtime hours."
The average time for "onboarding" -- the period between a conditional offer of employment and the time an employee starts work -- was 56 days last year for firefighting, emergency services and security jobs.
Various challenges led to the vacancies not getting filled at an efficient rate, but "the overall greatest delays appear to be the time it takes to schedule and receive appointments for pre-employment physicals and to receive the results of those physicals," said Fred Henney, deputy director of public affairs for Navy Installations Command.
Retirements, moves and personnel accepting other positions all contributed to the increased number of openings in both fire and security departments across the Navy's installations.
Force requirements for fire and emergency services and security force personnel increased, according to Henney.
Navy officials are working to reduce the "overall number" of vacant positions "at many locations across the Navy," Henney said.
The Navy is on track to fill all of the 229 fire and emergency services openings by the beginning of April, he said, and anticipates hiring up to 723 civilian police officers between now and fiscal year 2018.
When fully staffed, the number of civilian police officers across the U.S. and Guam is 3,684 and the number of civilian fire and emergency services personnel is 2,666.
One of the seven Groton firefighter vacancies eventually was filled by someone who started two weeks before the start of 2016.
Two physical agility tests have been administered within the last few weeks, with those prospective firefighters expected to receive start dates soon, Dwire said.
A posting on USAjobs.gov that appeared from Dec. 8 to 14 listed five firefighter job openings at the base with a salary range of $35,207 to $51,023 per year.
When fully staffed, the department has 40 members, all full-time employees. They work a 72-hour week, adding up to 144 hours in a pay period.
"Out of 144 hours, guys were working anywhere between 12 and 60 hours of extra overtime," Dwire said. "Most of it was involuntary."
Some overtime already is built into the firefighters' schedule.
The shortage of manpower has been the most severe in recent years, both because of the number of vacancies and the period for which they remained open, according to Dwire, who's been with the department for more than 12 years.
The department is expecting six to seven members to retire over the next two years and also will need to fill those positions, he said.
The sub base's security department has "some 11 civilian vacancies," according to Chris Zendan, spokesman for the base.
Four prospective employees have accepted tentative job offers "and those personnel are working through onboarding requirements," Zendan said.
A reduction in funding for security personnel in 2013 led to difficulties with recruiting and retention.
The Navy Installations Command has developed a strategy to open more opportunities at lower pay grades "to recruit candidates who are interested in this career path and offer them the appropriate training for long-term growth within the enterprise," Henney said.
Late last year the command established a working group, Henney said, "to focus on process improvements for pre-employment physicals, drug testing, agility testing, eligibility verification, etc., to improve the timeliness of the hiring process for F&ES and security personnel."