Falmouth firefighters at a training session. The town plans to add 14 new full-time firefighters to the roster at a cost of over $1.3 million. Courtesy / Falmouth Fire Department

FALMOUTH — Dave Cuttler, a per diem paramedic for the town, said Monday that it gets lonely being the only one on duty at 3 a.m. “when we’ve got serious stuff going on.” That’s why he supports a plan to immediately hire 14 new full-time firefighters.

The plan would ensure a crew of three is on duty around the clock at Central Station, according to Town Manager Nathan Poore. He said the plan, which also includes paying two per diem firefighters to cover the Winn Road fire station every day from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., would add over $1.3 million to the new fiscal year budget.

At a public hearing this week, councilors heard only positive input about the staffing measure from both firefighters and residents, with Ron Dearth, a longtime paramedic for Falmouth, saying current staffing levels “leave citizens at risk and also impacts firefighter safety.”

Finance Director Peter McHugh told The Forecaster Tuesday that while it’s still early in the budget process and there’s still many variables, he anticipates the fire staffing plan alone could add about 50 cents per $1,000 of valuation to the tax rate.

‘We’re still developing the budget and have a lot of work to do,” McHugh said, adding that “we’re trying to minimize the impact” of hiring the new firefighters. Without any mitigation in terms of additional revenue and reduced costs elsewhere, the staffing plan could add $233 to the tax bill of a home valued at $400,000, he said.

However, McHugh also made it clear that “it’s too early in the day” to know what the ultimate tax hit will be.

He also told councilors that hiring more firefighters isn’t the only anticipated impact on the budget. Monday he laid out various needs from other departments, including the school and the library, that could add substantial costs in fiscal year 2020-21.

Town Manager Nathan Poore said Monday the additional costs aren’t just for salaries and benefits, but for new uniforms and other gear, including radios. He’s also budgeted $10,000 for recruiting costs, such as advertising.

Tuesday Fire Chief Howard Rice said the staffing plan would almost double the current Fire Department budget of $1.8 million. Adding the new firefighters and other associated costs, he said, would bring his total budget up to just over $3 million.

The Town Council heard two recent presentations on the needs of the Fire Department, including one Jan. 27 that outlined the increasing number of calls for service, combined with the decreasing availability of call firefighters. This week Council Chairwoman Amy Kuhn said the decision about hiring new firefighters would be made during the budget approval process.

The department now operates with six full-time staff, 30 per diem firefighters who rotate, and about 60 on-call firefighters. However, the number of call firefighters responding to calls has dropped precipitously in recent years.

Rice said in 2011, call firefighters responded to 78% of 911 calls, but by 2019 that percentage had reversed, with full-time staff responding 60% of the time and call firefighters showing up 40% of the time.

According to Rice, the department responded to 1,796 incidents in 2014, compared to 2,216 in 2019, a 23% increase. Of those, 1,395 were EMS calls, which have increased 35% since 2011. In addition, he said, the number of times crews respond to multiple calls is also increasing, with 29 such incidents in December alone.

While the budget now covers two per diem staff per shift to ensure there is 24/7 coverage out of Central Station, Travis Miller, of the consulting firm Criterion and Associates, told councilors Feb. 10 that adding more full-time staff would allow the Fire Department to “reasonably handle” multiple, concurrent calls at any given time.

On Monday, Poore said he and Rice have tried over the past 13 years to “keep from going to a full-time staff as long as we could. We’ve tried to fill the gaps, but each year we’ve required more (paid) firefighters.”

Rice said Tuesday that call firefighters, who have no assigned shifts and only respond when they’re able, get paid between $13 and $30 per hour, depending on their level of experience, the number of certifications they carry and whether they’re a call officer.

“We’re doing the best we can with what we have,” Rice told the council Monday, “but we’re doing things now that we never did 10 to 15 years ago.”

While all the new protocols “provide great patient results,” Rice said each call is more involved and takes longer. For instance, he said, CPR is performed for at least 20 minutes at the scene before a patient is transported.

“Our greatest concern, though,” he said, ” is the number of trucks that don’t respond when called,” because they’re dependent on call firefighters, who are often simply unavailable due to work and family obligations.

Rice noted that on Monday the department received a call from Babbidge Road, on the west end of town, and said a crew from Windham beat Falmouth firefighters to the scene.

Cuttler, who is also the volunteer fire captain at the Foreside station, said while the Fire Department has “done a tremendous job” over the years, “it’s now changed a lot. Today is very different. The (volunteers) at Foreside missed 25% of its calls last year. We’ve been lucky many days, but that can’t keep happening.”

Dearth agreed and told a story of being on duty “late at night a few weeks ago” when he was called out for a fire alarm at the OceanView retirement community. “We hoped that help was coming, but all we got was silence and we were clearly on our own.”

“Engine 2 finally arrived,” he said, but even with that two-man crew, “we could not run a pump, or access the hydrant or set up an incident command. I wish I could say that was an anomaly, but it’s becoming the norm.”

“Being lucky can’t be part of our action plan,” Dearth added. “I hope you listen to the chief and do what’s necessary.”

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