Staffing our Fire and Rescue Department
By Gregory T. Federspiel
One of the bigger decisions currently being debated as part of the FY23 budget development process is how best to staff our Fire and Rescue Department. With a precipitous decline in our call-force ranks, there is a strong desire to pursue new staffing arrangements.
For many, many years the department has operated with three career fire fighters/ EMTs on duty each 24 hour shift. We have four crews of three that rotate working a 24 hour shift with the next 24 hours off, then working another 24 hour shift followed by 5 days off giving an average of 42 on-duty hours each week. In the past, when a call was received that required additional manpower or a second call for service was received with another service call in progress, call-fire fighters would respond to assist. With less than a handful of call-fighters now who have limited availability, we can no longer rely on this additional assistance.
A few years ago, we added a thirteenth firefighter/EMT to the department to act as a “floater” filling in for another staff member out on sick leave or vacation. This has helped maintain three staff members on duty 24/7. However, this does not help solve the problem of having four staff members when service calls demand this.
The National Fire code recommends that all departments adhere to the two in/two out standard at the scene of an active fire. This allows for proper safety precautions when firefighters enter a burning building. Two entering the building provides interior support while two outside can support and, if necessary, effect rescue measures for the two inside. We receive strong mutual aid from our neighboring communities but the extra time it takes for additional resources to arrive from out of town can result in significant expansion of a fire.
Having four on duty 24/7 also means that our staff can respond to a second service call while other staff are out on the first call. We are required to have two staff members to make an ambulance run. Simultaneous calls occur 4 to 6 times a month. Again, we have back-up ambulance service, but the response time is certainly much greater especially given the staffing struggles private ambulance services face.
However, we are a small town. It is unusual to have a town of our size providing 24/7 staffed paramedic level (Advanced Life Support or ALS) ambulance service. Having our own paramedics responding from our own station is a service that continually receives high praise from residents. And with an aging population, I expect the desire for this service to continue.
To enhance the reliability of our ambulance and fire services the time may be at hand to increase staff levels to four on-duty each shift. If we forgo the floater, this means three new hires. If we want to keep the floater, we need to hire four more. Each hire costs roughly $100,000 annually when all costs, including wages, benefits, and equipment, are included. We may be able to secure a “SAFER” grant through the federal government that covers 100% of the cost of new hires for the first three years. Come year four, we would be responsible for all the expenses. We could use the three years to prepare for the added cost, including the possibility of moving our dispatch service to the regional center which results in savings close to the cost of four new firefighters.
We collect fees from insurance companies or Medicare for ambulance services. These fees cover about a sixth of our current Fire Department operating expenses of roughly $1.5 million.
As we have seen with the dispatch debate, strong opinions exist on all sides of a public safety issue. We will need to continue to review the options before us. Ultimately it will be up to the voters to decide on the funding that will be needed for the final choices that we make.