The Future of Public Safety
By Gregory T. Federspiel
One of the bigger issues the Town faces as a new budget is developed for the upcoming Fiscal Year (July 1 start date) is determining the right level of staffing for our public safety departments. The Police, Fire, and Harbor Departments are all confronting new challenges that require a hard look at current staffing and what changes might be needed going forward.
In the Harbor Department, having a single Harbormaster with some part-time seasonal assistance is proving to be inadequate for the increased number of boaters that ply Manchester waters. The popularity of Sand Dollar Cove at the mouth of the harbor and the increased use of more distant beaches (White, Black and Gray) has grown significantly. Large weekend crowds require a larger presence of safety boats in order to maintain a safe and orderly environment. At a minimum, a new seasonal full-time position on the water is needed.
Over at the Fire Department, the loss of an active call force (we use to have upwards of 25 call fire fighters) creates a staffing shortage for back-to-back medical calls or when there is a structure fire. We currently have 3 full-time fire fighters/paramedics on duty 24/7. It is best to have two trained staff to roll any rig. If two are out on an ambulance call the third either stays behind at the station or assists on the first call depending on the severity of the medical emergency. In any case, there is not a fourth person to provide a second crew. If a second ambulance call comes in, we rely on mutual aid either from a private ambulance service or Gloucester to respond. (All of our police officers are trained at the basic EMT level and can provide first aid assistance as well.)
For an active fire, the protocol requires a minimum of four fire fighters providing for “2 in and 2 out.” This means that when 2 firefighters enter a burning structure (working in pairs is part of the protocol) there are two outside the building assisting and immediately available should the two inside run into trouble and need to be rescued. Again, mutual aid is an important part of our emergency response plan, but it takes time for additional crews to respond from another community. While active structure fires are rare in town, with only three on and no more call fire fighters coming to assist, our crew of three may need to wait for additional crews to arrive before attacking a fire from the inside.
To provide four fire fighters/paramedics on duty 24/7 requires that we hire at least two more fire fighters and up to six more if we are to cover all vacation and sick time to avoid dropping back to three.
In the Police Department, recent reforms to the rules governing training requirements for officers has led to a swift decline in the number of reserve officers we have. Reserves must now have the same training as a full-time police officer thus reserves are moving to full-time positions. In a few short months we have lost 10 of our 12 reserve officers and the two remaining are retired and are capped at the number of hours they can work. We have always relied on our reserves to cover vacant shifts due to regular officer leave time. While regular officers can work overtime to back fill a vacant shift, burn-out can quickly become a problem if this is done too often. In addition, with the change of dispatching services to the North Shore Regional Center slated to occur soon, there is the need to provide station coverage.
To solve both new staffing needs the Police Department is requesting to add two more patrol officers to their ranks. Enhanced station coverage can be provided most of the time while also providing additional staff for larger emergencies.
It may be possible to solve all three departmental needs through cross-training and putting resources to a given emergency need. For the Harbor Department, the School Resource Officer is free during the bulk of the boating season allowing us to dedicate a person to water patrol. While more discussions are needed, some police officers have indicated they would be willing to be trained as call fire fighters. If enough do, and we add to the Police department, then a patrol officer could respond to a fire as a fire fighter while still leaving two patrol officers on duty. The Fire Department has concerns about this approach, but it seems worthy of further exploration.
Manchester is a small community. Compared to many other communities we already have larger than normal Fire Department operations. However, residents have traditionally been willing to pay for premium services. Between now and the Annual Town Meeting the Finance Committee and the Select Board will be developing a proposed path forward to meet our new staffing challenges for voters to debate and approve. Proposals will be discussed at length at the February 9 Finance Committee meeting.