Editorial: Amherst Fire Department staffing study makes sense

  • Amherst Fire Chief Walter "Tim" Nelson pauses to talk with the press following a blaze that damaged a building at the Alpine Commons apartment complex on Belchertown Road in Amherst during 2016. BULLETIN FILE PHOTO

Saturday, October 14, 2017

A consultant’s report detailing an increasing need for more Amherst Fire Department personnel contains sensible recommendations that deserve careful consideration.

The Carlson Group, a public safety management consulting firm in Andover, was paid $14,500 for its year-long study Fire Department staffing and its response to calls between 2011 and 2016. The report delivered in September concludes that as calls for fire and emergency medical services continue to increase, at least two firefighter/paramedics should be added to staff an additional ambulance during periods when calls peak.

The study echoes the warnings issued in recent years by Fire Chief Walter “Tim” Nelson, as well as the union representing firefighters, that on-duty personnel were stretched thin, particularly during the academic year when students are on the campuses at the University of Massachusetts and Amherst and Hampshire colleges.

According to the consultant’s report, the number of calls handled by the Fire Department has increased steadily from about 15 per day in July 2011 to more than 17 per day in May 2016. “This volume of workload is such that concurrent calls are inevitable, as are extended response times,” the report states.

“Maintaining the ability to staff at least one (fire) engine and two ambulances (seven personnel) has been the historic approach. The department has the workload to justify increased staffing, and should be moving towards staffing at least an engine and three ambulances (nine personnel),” the report recommends.

In addition to covering the town of Amherst, the Fire Department provides emergency medical services to Hadley, Pelham, Leverett and Shutesbury. The department has 46 full-time staff: the chief, two assistant chiefs, a fire inspector, eight captains and 34 firefighters. All are emergency medical technicians, and 35 are licensed paramedics.

Because emergency medical services responses make up 80 percent of the Fire Department’s workload, a single call can occupy an ambulance for an hour or more, especially if a trip is needed to the Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton.

“The lengthy travel time to and from the hospital (in excess of 45 minutes) has an impact of staffing and on the availability of on-duty personnel,” the consultant reports. “A typical EMS call for service will take between one and two hours. This increases the likelihood that additional resources will be required to handle the ‘next’ call.”

In addition to full-time personnel, the Amherst Fire Department also has a 24-member, part-time call force whose members provide station coverage and respond to calls during particularly busy times. Also, a 30-member, trained volunteer student firefighting group staffs an overnight and weekend engine company at the North Amherst fire station during the academic year.

Still, the consultant reports that the “call force participation, which includes both drills and emergency responses, has been dropping steadily over the past 10 years … even as call volume has increased over the same period.”

All that adds up to the conclusion that Amherst should spend about $200,000 for salaries, health insurance, pensions, and other associated costs to hire the two additional firefight
ers/paramedics to staff an ambulance during periods when calls peak, which are roughly between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. weekdays and between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. overnight on Fridays and Saturdays.

The assignment of new staff to peak periods mirrors the policy already used by the Fire Department with money provided by UMass to increase staffing when it anticipates particularly busy times, generally on weekends.

Town Manager Paul Bockelman says he is pleased with the consultant’s study. “It lays out the steady increase in call volume for medical services and makes a recommendation for adding staffing. These recommendations will be taken very seriously but must be weighed in the context of constraints and competing demands on the town’s budget.”

Bockelman will name an advisory group, including Nelson and representatives of the firefighters’ union, to come up with a staffing plan by the end of the year so it can be included in the town budget he will deliver to the Select Board in January.

We believe that the consultant’s recommendation of adding staff for a peak-period ambulance, and evaluating its effectiveness after one year, makes sense. We urge the town to make that investment as an insurance policy for its 38,000 residents and the 32,000 students on its campuses.