Fire Chief Says Eight Needed To Shore Up Staffing

By: Ryan Bray

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

Orleans Fire Chief Geof Deering discusses his department’s staffing needs with the select board on Nov. 2. Deering said the department needs eight new shift personnel to adequately address the department’s current call volume. RYAN BRAY PHOTO

ORLEANS – As demand for fire and EMS services continues to outstrip personnel in the fire department, the town's fire chief made his case last week for a needed boost in department staffing.

Fire Chief Geof Deering told the select board Nov. 2 that the fire department needs eight new members to adequately address call volume that continues to increase, not only in Orleans but also at neighboring fire departments.

Deering provided statistics to the select board showing how call volume has increased in recent years. The department fielded 2,531 calls in 2016, while the total number of calls responded to in 2021 was 2,749. In 2018, a year marked by heavy winter storms, the number of calls topped 3,000.

That increase has hamstrung the department, which under its current firefighter contract with the town is allowed to staff a minimum of five people per shift. Nearby departments in Eastham, Brewster and Wellfleet each staff a minimum of five personnel per shift, while Chatham staffs a minimum of seven.

Ideally, Deering said, the department would be able to staff the fire station with enough people to accommodate putting two apparatus on the road to respond to calls at any given time, he said.

"Most days, we don't have that capability," he said. "We just don't."

Deering said simultaneous calls are becoming more the norm for the department. In 2021, the department faced simultaneous calls an average of 30 percent of the time. That number has increased slightly this year to 32.7 percent.

Meanwhile, station coverage has also been an issue. In August, Deering said there were 178 hours where the fire station was either understaffed or left with no staff in-house to respond to emergencies.

"This is something that honestly as fire chief keeps me up at night," he said. "Our community deserves to have someone there very quickly, and we don't always have the people there to respond quickly."

The department also hasn't been able to rely as readily on personnel to respond to callback requests when off-duty, the chief said.

"They're not coming in like they used to," he said. "There's probably a number of reasons for that, but the reality is they're just not coming in."

Further complicating matters is the ongoing housing shortage facing Orleans and other Cape communities. Firefighters in Orleans face the additional restriction of being required to live within seven miles of the station, Deering said, making housing even more difficult to come by.

The staffing shortage has put a considerable strain on members of the department, Deering added. He said in 2017, each firefighter went on an average of 130 "runs." By 2021, that number had increased to an average of 137. The additional work placed on staff contributes to issues with mental health and burnout, he said.

Deering noted that Hyannis has had among the highest call volume among Cape departments in recent years, but that the department has added 12 new positions since 2017.

"That's what adding personnel does...it spreads that workload out, " Deering said.

These staffing issues are not unique to Orleans or the Cape; as Deering noted there is currently a national shortage of firefighter and EMS personnel. That's put a strain on the ability of other departments to provide mutual aid and assist on calls. Deering said during a recent house fire in town, crews from as far away as Hyannis were called to help respond.

The shortage has led departments to look at opportunities for regionalizing emergency responses in their communities. Departments already share training, Deering said, while inspections and vehicle and equipment repair are areas that also could lend themselves to a regional approach.

But past efforts to regionalize fire services in Massachusetts have come up short. Deering said alongside infrastructure and collective bargaining issues, the biggest hurdle facing regionalization has been determining who is in charge of the effort.

"There were five towns on the South Shore that looked at it in the late '90s, but in the 11th hour it came down to a question of local control, and it never got anywhere beyond that," he said. Towns on the Outer Cape have also unsuccessfully explored regionalizing services, Deering said.

It's been eight years since Orleans last added positions to its fire roster, but Deering said the time has come for those staffing levels to be improved. The eight new positions proposed for fiscal 2024 would allow an additional two people per shift, thereby ensuring that two apparatus can be staffed immediately in the event of simultaneous calls.

But the additional staff would come at a cost. That includes $70,643 per position for salary, not including benefits. Each new hire would also need to be sent to fire academy training at a cost of $9,500 per person.

Other costs associated with the hires would include $30,000 to modify the station to turn a training room into temporary bunk and locker space; $20,000 for new gear, uniforms and equipment and $1,500 for additional administrative expenses.

The department could apply for funding through the Federal Emergency Management Agency's SAFER grant program, which Deering said would cover all salary and benefit costs for the eight positions for three years. It would then be up to the town to figure how to fund the positions moving forward.

Brewster, Eastham, Barnstable, Yarmouth and Bourne have successfully applied for SAFER funding in past years, Deering said. The department would apply for the grant funding in early 2023, with grant money awarded to departments in the fall of next year.

"I feel tremendously confident in our ability to achieve this grant," Deering said.

But even if the town authorizes the funding and hiring for the eight positions, it will take considerable time for those new hires to be trained and put to work. With a backlog of candidates waiting to be trained in Barnstable County, Deering said training for each new hire could take six to eight months.

Select board members voiced support for the request, but noted that it will take some planning and consideration. Kevin Galligan of the select board suggested that Finance Director Cathy Doane be asked to crunch the numbers to see how the town might go about funding the positions in the long-term.

"We just need to plan this out," he said, noting that an override of Proposition 2½ would likely be needed to support the positions after the SAFER grant expires, should it be awarded.

The board also supported the idea of regionalizing fire and EMS services where possible. Select Board member Mark Mathison suggested that regionalization should be looked at at the county level, perhaps with the help of the Cape Cod Commission. He added that the town needs to make sure that the eight positions are enough to "sustain" fire department staffing well into the future.

"We have a lot of weight in this response on us, and we have to talk about it," Select Board Chair Andrea Reed said.

Email Ryan Bray at ryan@capecodchronicle.com