Report: Amherst Fire Department needs to grow

  • A consultant is recommending that the Amherst Fire Department add four new firefighters/paramedics over the next two years. Here, the department responds to a fire on Belchertown Road last April. gazette file photo

Staff Writer
Thursday, October 05, 2017

AMHERST — A consultant is advising town officials that at least two firefighter/ paramedics should be added to the Amherst Fire Department to handle a growing volume of calls and ensure that three ambulances are in service at all times.

But the recommendation from Travis Miller of the Andover-based The Carlson Group to launch a pilot staffing program, which in the first year would add the new positions on five-day, eight-hour shifts, is raising concerns from Fire Chief Walter “Tim” Nelson, who agrees with the need for extra help but not the model put forth by Miller.

Nelson said it would be a “bear” to manage firefighters who are not part of the existing schedule, in which career firefighters work 24-hour days, and would mean the new hires are separate from the rest of the team. Those firefighters are supplemented by both on-call and student forces who are used as needed on a part-time basis.

“It’s a good first step,” Nelson said of the recommendation. “What I like to say is we need to write the end of the story first, figure out where we want to be, and get there.”

But he appreciates that the consultant is allowing a dialogue to begin on how to deliver good service and be fiscally responsible.

The consultant’s recommendations for adding to the 46-member department, which would mean nine full-time staff on at all times and reduce the number of mutual aid ambulances, are included in a 33-page report presented to the Select Board Monday.

Miller’s proposal would target specific times of day when workloads are the highest.

“The way you’re doing things now is not long-term sustainable, it’s just not,” Miller said.

The approach, Miller explained, would slow down the demands on the part-time call force and the student force largely made up of those attending the University of Massachusetts, and would also reduce the need to “call back” career firefighters who are off duty.

In year one, with two firefighters/paramedics working 40 hours, the cost would be $200,000. The report calls for two more firefighter/paramedics in the second year for another $200,000, or $400,000 for the four new positions. The department would then be able to work those new hires on seven-day, 12-hour shifts, according to the report.

In the report, Miller writes: “The department has the workload to justify increased staffing and should be moving toward staffing at least an engine and three ambulances.”

The need is obvious, Miller said, as over the past five years calls have gone up in Amherst from an average of fewer than 12 per day to about 14 per day.

“It’s a place you’re going to head toward,” Miller said.

With the report in hand, Nelson said the town can form a subcommittee, involving Town Manager Paul Bockelman, Interim Co-Finance Director Sonia Aldrich and representatives of Amherst Firefighters Local 1764, to come up with a satisfactory plan.

Bockelman said he is pleased with the consultant’s product. “I think it’s a very robust report,” Bockelman said.

He said the report is timely as he embarks on the fiscal 2019 budget preparation, and enters into collective bargaining with the union.

But he acknowledges that firefighters will not agree with all conclusions in the report. “These issues are never easy for anybody,” Bockelman said.

In fact, Miller met with firefighters for two hours Monday morning, and observed that the conversation was honest but not “100 percent pleasant.”

Joseph Lagasse, president of the firefighters union, said increasing the department’s staffing level is a critical step forward for enhancing public safety and improving and helping to determine what Amherst needs for level.

But Lagasse said the study doesn’t identify the existing service gaps when the department is waiting for career firefighters to respond to the call back or for on-call firefighters to arrive.

“We agree with much of what is in there, (but) we have some disagreements and concerns with some of the information,” Lagasse said.

The report also includes additional information about what the department is facing and common misperceptions.

Miller said one ongoing complication for ambulance runs is the lack of a medical center in town, with extended transport times caused by traveling to Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton over Route 9.

There are also myths that surrounding towns are causing increase in workload. Even with Hadley issuing a request for proposal in which it could turn to a private contractor or another ambulance service, Amherst’s workload would still grow within next two to four years, the report states.

It’s also not true, Miller said, that university students generate a disproportionate impact on workload.

“The 75-year-old person living in Amherst is far more likely to generate a 911 call than a 19-year-old kid, drunk or not,” Miller said.

Assistant Fire Chief Lindsay Stromgren said all residents should read the report from cover to cover to get a better understanding of the department and its future needs.

The report will be posted on the town’s website Tuesday, Bockelman said.

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