Local fire and rescue departments saw an escalation in calls last year, ranging from 13 percent in Chatham to 15 percent in Orleans and nearly 20 percent in Harwich.
Most of the increases were in the number of emergency medical calls fielded by the departments. A major factor, officials say, is the area's aging population; last year's winter storms also contributed to the increase.
“The storms certainly did create an increased level of activity, particularly the March storms,” said Orleans Fire Chief Anthony Pike.
“We got a few more out of it,” Chatham Fire Chief Peter Connick said of the storms, but he added that runs continued to increase throughout the year.
Harwich Deputy Fire Chief Dave LeBlanc agreed. Between July 1 and December, his department saw a 200-run increase.
“We're just busy. There are more calls for service,” he said.
Harwich's total number of runs in 2018 increased by 832 to 5,029, a 19.6 percent jump over the 4,206 runs in 2017. Chatham saw a 13 percent increase, with 3,149 runs last year compared to 2,787 in 2017. The number of runs in Orleans increased from 2,603 to 3,002, a jump of 399 runs, a 15.3 percent hike. Harwich had the fifth highest number of runs last year out of the Cape's 20 fire departments, behind Falmouth, Yarmouth, Hyannis and Dennis, according to statistics posted at CapeCodFD.com.
While non-emergency medical calls remained steady, Connick said all medical call categories saw increases, including walk-ins to the department's Depot Road station. Many of the ambulance calls came in while crews were already out on calls, with about a quarter of all calls overlapping. Chatham has six people on each shift, and if three go out on an ambulance run, three off-duty personnel are called in. Even though this results in overtime, Connick it makes more financial sense than hiring more staff because of the high cost of benefits.
“Overlapping calls are certainly not unique to us,” he added, noting that when it gets busy in the summer the department also relies on mutual aid from other nearby departments.
Orleans, on the other hand, typically has five people on per shift, but due to vacations and illnesses, especially in the winter, there can be as few as three people per shift, said Pike.
“That's completely inadequate,” he said, and cuts into response time, especially critical for emergency medical calls. Another factor is the high cost of living; department members must live within seven miles of town, and waiting for firefighters to arrive after being called in can mean longer response times.
“We just lost a member who decided to move out of state” due to the region's high housing costs, Pike said.
Inadequate staffing, as well as the aging facility, are impeding the department's ability to do its job, especially with calls increasing annually.
“We really are in a critical period as to whether we can sustain our level of service without additional help,” Pike said. Other major building projects have been completed in recent years, including a new police station and department of public works facility, and he's “all but begged” for help with the 32-year fire station since he became chief nearly five years ago. At the spring annual town meeting, the town will finally be proposing a facility study, but any improvements are at least five years away, he said.
“For a lifesaving agency, somebody needs to throw us a life saver,” he said. With the year-round population getting older – Orleans has the oldest population the state, followed closely by Chatham – that's a concern. “Clearly our demographic in Orleans is fairly unique, even compared to our surrounding towns,” said Pike.
A new East Harwich substation is currently under construction and it will handle calls in that side of town, which is increasingly busy, especially with responses to the Fontaine Medical Center. When the facility first open, calls there increased dramatically, LeBlanc said, and in the past few years they have been consistent but not increased much. He doesn't anticipate Outer Cape Health Service's new facility on Route 28, across from Saquatucket Harbor, adding runs, since the agency has operated a health center in Harwich for some years.
“We may pick up some runs there, but I wouldn't say it's going to be more than at the old Chatham Road” location of Outer Cape Health Services, he said.
The Harwich department has seen steady increases in recent years, but LeBlanc said he's not sure what accounts for the nearly 20 percent jump in 2018. Just as in Chatham and Orleans, the population in Harwich is aging, and calls to the department remain steady year round instead of dropping off in the off-season as was the case in the past, he said.
“We're pretty consistent now year round,” he said.
One factor may be that people call an ambulance now when they might have gone to the doctor in the past. “Emergency rooms and ambulances have kind of taken over initial treatment of patients. I think we see reflection of that in how we operate.”
At present the department can handle the increase with help from area departments, and won't need to add people or resources, LeBlanc said.
“I think we're a long way from that. While it's a significant increase, I don't think it's a problem at this point,” he said.