Statement Regarding Staffing and the Jackson’s Variety Fire
Edward Freitas, President, Local 1555
On March 10, five very brave people were honored for rescuing an elderly gentleman from a fire at Jackson’s Variety last month. Without a doubt, had they not been in the right place, at the right time, there likely would have been at least one fatality. We thank them for their bravery.
The fire was reported at approximately 7:40 a.m. This was the best possible time for a fire to occur. It was shift change at the fire department and the traffic in that area was at its peak with people going to and from work and school. The building was an old wooden structure. Plenty of things inside that add “fuel to the fire” if you will. Sound familiar? It sounds like my house, could be yours.
The Fairhaven Fire Department changes shifts at 8 AM each morning. This means that there are usually between eight and ten firefighters at the station at the same time, assuming there are no emergency calls at the time. Had this fire occurred twenty or thirty minutes later, the response would have been five firefighters from Headquarters. Again, that is assuming that there are no ambulance runs at the time. One ambulance run at this same time would have dropped it to three.
Each shift has six firefighters assigned to it. Often times, due to vacation time, sick leave, injuries, personal time, etc, there can be five or even four on duty. We provide three Advanced Life Support ambulances to the Town. It is not unusual to have all three ambulances out on runs simultaneously. Each ambulance requires a minimum of two Firefighter/Paramedics. If you do the math, it doesn’t add up: how can you staff three ambulances with two medics on each if you have five or six firefighters on duty?
Many times, we get multiple ambulance requests at the same time. Two FF/PMs respond to the first request. Subsequent ambulance requests are handled differently. Sometimes we are able to provide the extra staffing from off duty firefighters. Sometimes we get call firefighters to respond. Far too often, we have on duty staff responding to the second and third ambulance calls, leaving the station down to a single firefighter. Imagine getting a reported fire while only one firefighter is back at the station? Can you picture the Jackson’s Variety fire happening during this time?
All the NFPA rules are thrown out the window, along with any safety considerations. Regardless of what you might be told (that staffing is within NFPA guidelines), how can anyone guarantee that help will be responding from home? All we can rely on are the firefighters on duty. So, that one firefighter (two if we’re lucky) is still expected to not only respond to that fire alone, they must first dispatch everyone else who MIGHT respond from home (off duty), get to the fire, pull a hose line, possibly make a rescue and pray that someone is there to back them up!
Staffing means everything. It means we have a better chance at properly, safely responding to your emergency. It means we have a much better chance at a positive outcome. It also means that we, the firefighters, have a better chance at going home to our own families at the end of our shift. Our department has been understaffed since the time we started running the ambulance service (and in turn, generating money) for the town. Those three ambulances are quite busy for a small town. In addition to providing ALS coverage to our own town, we are also providing mutual aid to the communities around us (and happy to do so) and supplementing Paramedic staffing for Mattapoisett Police (not so happy). Look at what is happening with the New Bedford Fire Department. You are wrong if you think that situation will not affect Fairhaven. Our staff is spread way too thin.
Many years ago, the town saw fit to hire civilian dispatchers to dispatch police, fire and EMS calls. The town was busy enough to need dispatchers. Previous to the civilian dispatchers, a police officer had to remain at their station to handle dispatch and a firefighter had to do the same at the fire station side of the building. Fast forward a few years. The ambulance service became MUCH busier, the Fire Department calls for service increases every year and yet we went back to having to dispatch ourselves because the number of civilian dispatchers was cut in half (four) and they won’t dispatch for us any longer.*
We’ve asked for staffing increases and truth be told, we have seen small increases here and there. The staffing increases are nothing like the increase in run volume since the Fairhaven Fire Department started doing ambulance calls.
In 1996, the firefighters began assisting police officers on ambulance calls. The PD actually ran the ambulance up to 1996. At that time, we set a department record for total runs (1246). The staffing was four firefighters per shift. Fast forward to 2018. The Fairhaven Fire Department responded to 4665 calls, an increase of 274%. Staffing was five firefighters, 21 total. As a comparable, in 2018 the town of Norton responded to 4421 calls with 39 firefighters. Somerset Fire Department responded to 3123 with 35 firefighters. In 2019, our staffing is now 6 firefighters. We are again on a record setting pace. It is simply impossible to run 3 ALS ambulances along with provid[ing] proper fire protection.
The ambulance[s] generate money for the Town. Cutting ambulances means cutting income. Increasing staffing increases the ability to staff all the ambulances, thus generating more money.
Our Chief and Deputy Chief do amazing work with what they have. Fortunately, luck has been on our side, as it was at the Jackson’s fire. The time will come where we might not be so fortunate.
*EDITOR’S NOTE: Residents who call 911 for emergencies will receive the help they need, whether it is from police, firefighters, paramedics, or all three. The dispatch service will call out ALL the necessary first responders. The only difference is that after the first call-out, the fire department handles its own calls to call firefighters, etc., instead of a central dispatcher handling all the subsequent calls. Residents should call 911 in an emergency.
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