Amherst fire union: Town gambling with public safety

  • Jason Steininger, a firefighter in the Amherst department, at a training last year. CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Saturday, January 07, 2017

AMHERST — The union representing Amherst firefighters is using social media to raise concerns that the Amherst Fire Department is already overwhelmed by emergency calls three days into 2017.

On New Year’s Day, Amherst Firefighters Local 1764 wrote on its Facebook and Twitter feeds that “low staffing continues to threaten the safety of those we protect,” and followed this with a photograph of a Northampton Fire Department ambulance at an incident in downtown Amherst:

“Less than 16 hours into the new year and we are already relying on our neighboring communities to pick up where Amherst’s staffing has failed,” the union wrote. “Fire department staffing is not even sufficient to handle the normal daily call volumes.”

Joseph Lagasse, union president, said this is part of an ongoing tactic to inform both Amherst residents, and those in neighboring towns who depend on the service, that Amherst officials are “gambling” with public safety.

“We have been making more people aware of these unsafe practices for many months now in hopes that they will seek out their local town officials and demand appropriate staffing levels in order to make use of station coverages occasionally when needed, not the near daily occurrence it is now,” Lagasse said.

It’s a concern shared by Fire Chief Walter “Tim” Nelson, who responded last summer by applying for a Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grant program.

But this two-year, $1.08 million SAFER grant was rejected. The grant would have added eight professional personnel, of which six would have joined the department’s 42 firefighter paramedics.

“We were trying to get staff for our service zone, but our needs were not as sexy as the need of the other towns,” Nelson said.

Staffing study underway

Officials are now waiting for a staffing and deployment study, to be completed by the Andover-based Carlson Group, that could identify how best to increase department’s $4.5 million budget.

The study will examine how the four shifts are scheduled. The department has two groups of 10 firefighters and two groups of 11 firefighters, and each career firefighter works one 24-hour shift, then has a day off before working a second 24-hour shift, then has five days off.

The study will also look at the current minimum staffing of eight firefighters during the academic year, and minimum seven during the rest of the year.

“The staffing study will help to define where we need to be,” Nelson said

Town Manager Paul Bockelman said until the issues are identified, it’s premature to speculate on what the recommendations might be.

“Once we have shared set of information, then we’ll talk about solutions, assuming there is a problem,” Bockelman said.

Calls up slightly in 2016

In preliminary statistics for the recent calendar year, the department saw a net gain of 142 calls, from 6,363 in 2015 to 6,505 in 2016, a 2.2 percent increase, with a 3.9 percent rise in medical calls, 4,865 to 5,055.

The Amherst EMS serves Hadley, Leverett, Pelham and Shutesbury, along with the University of Massachusetts, Amherst College and Hampshire College, encompassing 125 square miles and 80,000 people.

Medical calls tend to be more time consuming, Nelson said, with a call to a hospital lasting 90 minutes, whether heading to Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton or to Baystate Medical Center in Springfield.

While an active fire can last a while, most fire calls are brief, as they are triggered by false alarms, smoke from a stovetop or broken pipes.

Nelson said there are times when no one is in town, such as with ambulance runs or providing mutual aid and members of the call force must be summoned or the permanent force must be called back.

“That is happening more and more, we’re calling people back,” Nelson said. “There are times when there is no fire protection in town. No one would put up with no police protection in town.”

Bockelman will release his budget proposal on Jan. 12, though at the Select Board’s Dec. 19 meeting he said there would be no “big splashes.”

“We’ll present you a no drama, no major new initiatives type of budget come January,” Bockelman told the board.

Nelson said he put in a budget request for more staff, but understands this will be a tough sell.

Even if firefighters could work more overtime, there are indicators that they can’t keep up with this load.

“We’re beginning to see the effects of burnout,” Nelson said. “Our injury rate is going up, our sick leave rate is going up.”

Lagasse said it would be unfair to make other cities and towns continue to help with routine medical calls.

“Not every emergency can be planned for, but we should be able to handle what we know regularly occurs,” Lagasse said.

“The system is stretched and it will break at some point,” Nelson said.

Still, Nelson said he shares former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s mantra that “eternal optimism is a force multiplier.”

“We have to find a way because there are folks who depend on us,” Nelson said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.