The Falmouth Fire Department is seeing an increase in call volume and a decrease in the number of call firefighters available, which means the town may need to hire more full-time staff. Here members of the department conduct a training session. Courtesy / Falmouth Fire Department

FALMOUTH — The Fire Department’s ability to respond to emergencies is being stretched due to a significant increase in calls and a decrease in the number of call firefighters available, according to Fire Chief Howard Rice.

Over the past few years, the department has added more per diem shifts, but Rice said it’s still difficult to get enough people to respond to a scene – particularly if there are multiple calls occurring at the same time, which he said happened 29 times in December alone.

A study is now underway to determine the optimum number of people who should serve per shift. The council will receive a report on the staffing study at its Feb. 10 meeting, but councilors are already anticipating a budget impact due to the likelihood more full-time firefighters will be hired.

Rice said the number of staff needed at any given time would be heavily dependent on the data collected through the study, including where calls are coming from and when call volume is busiest.

“I’m excited to see the staffing study,” he said. “I have my ideas about what I think we need. But it will be important to see what the data shows.”

Town Manager Nathan Poore said staffing challenges mean Falmouth may have to hire more full-time staff, instead of continuing to rely so heavily on call firefighters.

There are only six full-time employees in the Fire Department, including Rice, an assistant chief, a deputy chief, two captains and an administrative assistant. According to Rice, there are about 30 per diem firefighters who rotate and often work for other departments, as well, and about 60 regular, on-call firefighters.

The budget covers two per diem staff per shift to ensure there is 24/7 coverage, at an annual cost of about $547,000. Call firefighters, a third of whom either live or work out of town, according to Rice, are paid hourly when they are capable of responding.

Under national standards, a minimum of four firefighters is required to enter a structure to investigate a possible fire or hazardous situation, he said, but Falmouth fire trucks, in particular, often roll out with only two people on board.

Rice also said even though response times are “pretty good,” especially for the frontline responders, getting a second truck and crew on scene can sometimes be difficult.

Ambulance 1 can get “anywhere in town in about seven minutes,” Rice said, but Engine 1’s average response time is close to 11 minutes and a second engine often takes more than 14 minutes to arrive due to a lack of personnel. His goal is to get those secondary response times down to around seven minutes, as well, Rice said Monday.

Rice is often needed to drive an engine, which takes away from his ability to cover his other duties, not just at the fire station, but on scene, where he takes primary responsibility for firefighter safety.

According to Rice, the Fire Department should have at least 10 firefighters on scene for a residential call; for a commercial fire alarm there should be at least 13 “to do it safely and properly.” However, in data shared with the council Monday, Rice said for the majority of calls the department is lucky to get an average of three on scene, at least initially.

Rice said the fire department responded to 1,796 incidents in 2014, compared to 2,216 in 2019. Of those, 1,395 were EMS calls, which have increased 35% since 2011. He’s projecting the calls to increase another 38% over the next decade. All firefighters working in Falmouth have either EMS or paramedic training.

Councilor Janice De Lima told Rice, “I applaud your creativity in getting the job done over the years, but I’m concerned about crew size and response times and I believe we really have no choice but to figure out a way to act and accommodate the need.”

In addition to the anticipated council discussion on Fire Department staffing next month, Council Chairwoman Amy Kuhn also said the town would “schedule a public forum of some kind” this winter to “talk it through.”

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