FROM THE TOWN ADMINSTRATOR'S DESK
By Gregory T. Federspiel
As work continues on the formation of the FY2019 Budget that will be put forth to voters at April’s Annual Town Meeting, discussions are zeroing in on a few key issues. Staffing within the Fire/ Rescue (Ambulance) Department is one such key topic.
As has been noted before, the Fire Department has seen a significant drop in the number of call fire fighters. In the past upwards of two dozen volunteers devoted time to be trained as an on-call fire fighter/emergency medical technician. These volunteers have been an important component of our Fire Department, joining forces with our career staff to respond to a fire or medical emergency. Today we have less than a handful of volunteers and most of them live outside of Manchester.
Even with a healthy number of volunteers we have had 12 career fire fighters plus a Fire Chief staffing the department. 3 career firefighters are scheduled to man the station 24 hours a day, seven days a week. However with various leave time – primarily vacations and sick days – this staffing pattern often results in 2 staff in the station. This becomes a problem when there are back to back ambulance calls or when there is an active fire, both necessitating a minimum of 4 people. Back to back calls happen about 100 times a year and, fortunately, we only have at most a handful of active structure fires a year. None the less, there are times when a fire fighter is waiting for someone to come to the station before being able to respond to an emergency call. (For medical emergencies, our Police Officers are trained as EMTs and can provide basic emergency medical aid.)
Most towns our size rely primarily on volunteer/call fire fighters. With our paid staff, our per capita spending on fire/ambulance service is already significantly higher than most of our peer communities. The trend of fewer volunteers is happening across the country thus it is likely more and more municipalities will be contemplating boosting their fire department budgets as they think about hiring staff. However, there are communities that have retained a successful and robust volunteer recruitment effort. So far efforts to revitalize Manchester’s call force have resulted in a few new recruits but no enough yet to solve our staffing challenges. With a majority of our population working outside of town and the increased training requirements to become a call fire fighter/EMT it may not be possible to revitalize our call force to where it once was.
The proposed preliminary budget for the Fire Department contains additional funds to hire a new 13th fire fighter who would serve as floater, filling in shifts that are vacant due to leave time. This approach, combined with filling some shifts with overtime, can ensure we always have three on duty. When a fourth is needed, career or call staff can be brought in. This approach obviously adds additional cost though some of the additional cost is covered through savings in pay to a smaller call force and using less overtime. Savings in other departments can cover the rest of the increase.
There are other options that will be debated, though some will take longer to implement than others. Contracting for services with Gloucester might be feasible. Merging with Essex is another idea however Essex still relies on volunteers and going to a combination career and call force will be a big step for them that may need to happen gradually. Moving toward a combined Public Safety department with staff cross-trained in police and fire operations is a third concept but there are state laws that need to be navigated and again it would take time and money to complete the needed training.
The important services that the Fire Department provides will continue. What the best structure is, both in the short and long term, for providing the services will be part of this year’s budget discussions. Have your own thoughts? Your input is welcome.