Study Criticizes Fire Staffing Model, Finds Morale Is Low

By: Ed Maroney

Topics: Fire , Municipal Finance

Incoming Orleans Fire Chief Geof Deering, far left, listened in the company of Yarmouth Chief Philip Simonian and Provincetown Chief Michael Trovato last month as Centerville-Osterville-Marstons Mills Chief Michael Winn emceed a ceremony for retiring chief Anthony Pike. Deering was named to the top job just before a staffing and organizational study found that the department’s “current staffing model is neither sustainable nor efficient.”  FILE PHOTO

ORLEANS — While fire department personnel “have consistently provided the highest possible level of emergency services to the Orleans community,” according to a new study, the current staffing model “is neither sustainable nor efficient.”

A staffing and organizational review by Emergency Services Consulting International recommends a reorganization to increase minimum staffing to four firefighters per shift, reduce ambulance staffing from three to two, and eliminate routinely calling back firefighters on overtime for emergency medical services calls.

In addition to noting previously cited concerns about the shortcomings of the department’s crowded building, including less than adequate air quality, the report found “that morale was poor” within the department. In an internal survey, firefighters called for better and more consistent communication between management and staff. The consultants were to make a presentation to the selectmen last night (March 4).

“There is a lot to the study,” Chief Geof Deering wrote in response to a request for comment. “It really is comprehensive in looking at the department. We are still processing a lot of the information at this point. We, like any other organization, are and should be constantly looking at areas to improve. The consultants offer recommendations on areas to improve; we must now find the best way to implement those that are in line with our mission in providing high-quality emergency services to Orleans.”

The 114-page study found that the current staffing model “allows for as few as two firefighters on shift year-round excluding the Chief and Fire Inspector. There is an increase to three firefighters per shift between June 15th and September 15th; however, the Fire Chief and Deputy Chief count toward this increased level of staffing.” The consultants wrote that a minimum four-staff-per-shift schedule (with a fifth firefighter budgeted for relief) would be a more cost-effective model and would not require more than the 20 firefighters now on staff.

“Since Orleans current minimum staffing is either 2 or 3 firefighters per day,” the consultants wrote, “a major contributor to the difference in spending is likely due to the use of call back overtime where employees are paid overtime for responding back to the fire station on their days off and receiving a set amount of time or greater for each call back. Because some overtime is likely to occur throughout the year, Orleans should continue to allocate funding to the overtime line item; however, Orleans has the current potential to drastically reduce overtime if managed appropriately.”

The report recommends further savings by reducing ambulance staffing from three to two firefighters. “While staffing three personnel on an ambulance is consistent with other Cape Cod Fire Departments,” the consultants wrote, “this is not the practice throughout most of the rest of the country… maintaining a 5-person crew with a 4-person minimum staffing, and staffing at least one paramedic on the engine/ladder truck will effectively double the number of units in service daily, reduce the costs of providing EMS transport, and have the ability to provide a second paramedic when required.”

By eliminating routine callback overtime for EMS calls, the report found that the restriction that firefighters hired after March 8, 2000, must live within a seven-mile radius of the station could be loosened. “This is important because the recruitment of new firefighters has become increasingly more challenging for the Orleans Fire Department in recent years,” the consultants wrote.

The report includes 30 short-, mid-, and long-term recommendations spread over the next three years that range from setting up a labor-management committee of two union representatives, the chief and the deputy chief, to providing additional support for the fire inspector’s office. Running throughout the list is the theme of better planning efforts.

An “external customer survey” found “overwhelmingly” that the department “was both professional and caring,” with many respondents concerned about the condition and size of the current station. A matching internal survey of staff found a desire for more training, including off-duty and live fire learning opportunities. In addition to better communication, ways to improve morale included “better wages and settling the contract.” The internal study found unanimous agreement that existing facilities are not in good repair and are not adequate to meet the needs of the department.

“One concern that was repeatedly expressed during interviews with both the management and labor of the Orleans Fire Department was the disparity between the salaries in the (OFD) and those offered by other fire departments in Cape Cod…,” according to the report. “The Orleans collective bargaining agreement contract expired in 2018, which is a secondary detractor to salary in the Town’s ability to attract new paramedic firefighters.”

The base salary at the 2018 level for an Orleans EMT-paramedic is $53,716. This compares with the following 2020 rates: Eastham $59,263, Brewster $60,495, Chatham $62,028, and Harwich $72,899.

“The culture that currently exists within the Orleans Fire Department is not a positive work environment and is not contributing to the overall success of the organization,” the report declares. “It is ESCI’s opinion that most, but not all, of the fire department members that attended the workshop with ESCI could be an asset for drastically improving the culture of the Orleans Fire Department if they were placed under the direction of a strong fire chief who clearly communicated with them the plan for the future and also demonstrated a willingness to support them in their efforts to implement that plan.”