Orleans Fire Facing Fewer Staff, More Transports

By: Ryan Bray

Topics: Police, Fire And Harbormaster News , Orleans news , local government

Cape Cod Healthcare is expected to open a new urgent care center at 42 Route 6A next month. The new building is expected to further increase the call volume for the Orleans Fire Department. RYAN BRAY PHOTO

ORLEANS – Transports are up at the Orleans Fire Department, and with the impending opening of a new urgent care center next month on Route 6A, the trend is expected to continue.

But to accommodate the additional call volume, Fire Chief Geof Deering said something needs to be done to boost the department's staffing levels.

In his report to the select board June 1, Deering said ambulance transports went from 182 to 225 during the most recent quarter. When Cape Cod Healthcare's new urgent care facility opens in early July, it could add between 150 and 200 extra calls a year to the workload of a department that's already stretched thin, he said.

The fire department staffs a minimum of four people per shift, Deering said. If an ambulance gets called out, that often leaves just one person behind in the station. When multiple ambulances are called out at once, he said, there is no one left to staff the station unless off-duty firefighters answer a call to come back to the station.

"We'll go through periods of time where there's no one in the building," Deering said. "It's hours at a time, everyday."

Further complicating matters, fewer personnel are responding to call backs when the station is short staffed. Deering estimated that about 30 percent of the time, those calls aren't returned.

Mefford Runyon of the select board said the lack of call backs defeats the purpose of a radius requirement that restricts department personnel to living within seven miles of the fire station. The radius is designed to allow personnel called back to the station to respond within 15 minutes, Deering said.

"If we don't get a better call back record here, I think we're going to be in trouble," Runyon said.

"To say we might be in trouble, I'd politely disagree,' Deering responded. "We are in trouble."

The 6,500-square-foot urgent care center planned for 42 Route 6A will offer urgent care services from May to October and primary care year-round. It will include 12 exam rooms (six for urgent care and six for primary care), as well as an X-ray room, a room for blood drawing, two nursing stations, office space, bathrooms and waiting rooms.

"This is a nonprofit," Select Board member Kevin Galligan said. "They pay no tax to the community, and you have to respond."

Mark Mathison of the select board asked if staff at the urgent care center could assist the fire department on ambulance calls in an effort to ease the department's workload. But Deering said there are limitations as to who can and cannot work on an ambulance.

"They have to be working for a licensed ambulance service to function as a paramedic in that ambulance," he said.

Instead, Deering advocated for increasing fire department staffing from four people per shift to between five and seven. This would make the department less dependent on call backs, which cost the town money in overtime.

In the short term, he said, even an additional person per shift paid through overtime could make a measurable difference.

"Overtime isn't cheap, it's expensive," he said. "We run pretty high in overtime costs already, but that puts another person in the building so we can put two resources on the road simultaneously."

Additional staff would also reduce the department's dependency on mutual aid from neighboring fire departments in Brewster, Eastham and Harwich, Deering said. While the department typically offers as much mutual aid as it receives, he said Orleans received nine more mutual aid responses than it offered to other departments in the last three months.

In light of a current staffing model he said is "not sustainable," Mathison suggested that a more regionalized staffing solution be explored that could benefit Orleans and its neighboring departments on the Lower Cape.

"Is there anyone out there that's looking at a different model other than the failing one that we have now?" he asked.

Deering said the staffing strain is not unique to Orleans, and that neighboring departments are all facing the same issues.

"Every fire department on Cape Cod is having trouble finding people," he said. "There's a national shortage of paramedics. The paramedics that are out there, it's their market to figure out where they want to work."

The concept of regionalized staffing is further complicated by the fact that each fire department has their own collective bargaining agreement with their towns, Deering said. However, he said there are some services that could more easily be shared, such as vehicle maintenance, training and inspections.

The aging fire station on Eldredge Park Way also presents problems of its own in terms of accommodating more staff. Even if the department were able to hire more people, the station, which first opened in 1987, does not have the space to house them.

Efforts are underway to site a new, larger station in town that would better meet the needs of a modern fire station. But a new building is still years away from opening.

"The clear need here is more staffing, more people on duty," Runyon said. "I don't think that need is going to be able to wait until a new fire station is built."

"We will keep talking about this," Select Board Chair Andrea Reed said.

Email Ryan Bray at ryan@capecodchronicle.com