The selectmen announced a plan to seek a $1.3 million override to hire eight additional firefighters for the Falmouth Fire Rescue Department at the community forum on the present and future of fire protection services on Tuesday, January 21.
“We really do believe this is a department that needs additional staffing, which is why that will be presented at the April Town Meeting,” Selectmen Chairwoman Megan E. English Braga said.
Director of Finance Jennifer Mullen said the cost of a single firefighter’s salary and benefits is $170,642. At eight firefighters, the proposed override would cost $1,366,735.
“The effect on the rate is 13 cents per $1,000 of assessed value,” Ms. Mullen said, meaning a home assessed at $378,000 would see a tax increase of $49.25 if the override passed.
Daniel H. Shearer of West Falmouth asked if the positions could be funded using free cash rather than an override. Ms. Mullen said while the town has $1.4 million in free cash, doing so would only cover the cost of hiring firefighters for one year. An override would increase the overall tax base, creating a recurring revenue stream for a recurring expense.
While the proposed override would enable the town to add two firefighters to each of the four shifts, Town Manager Julian M. Suso said it would take approximately a year to hire new firefighters. If the override is approved at Town Meeting and passes at the ballot in May, Mr. Suso said, the first new firefighters would be on duty in mid-2021.
Ms. English Braga reiterated this point.
“The override is not for new firefighters for West Falmouth,” she said. “The override is to get eight new firefighters to be staffed appropriately, knowing that we have the challenges that the chief has already spoken about with the West Falmouth station and knowing we are looking to build a new facility in the coming years.”
Staffing levels at the fire department are changing on July 1. Since 1977 the fire department has started each shift with 10 firefighters.
“It is an old, broken, wasteful, inefficient use of available resources and dollars,” Fire Chief Michael F. Small said. “In 1977, it worked OK, but in 2019, it’s broken. It’s just not working.”
That number increases to 14 in July. In addition, the agreement requires any responding apparatus be staffed by two firefighters.
“One of the impacts of this 10-man minimum we’ve operated with all these years is it requires apparatus operated by a single man to respond to all types of emergencies, fire and medical calls, all over town, multiple times a day, 365 days a year,” Chief Small said. “This ends the incredibly unsafe practice of sending one firefighter out on a piece of apparatus.”
The change in shift size changes how firefighters will be assigned at the start of a shift. Under the current system, the Woods Hole and West Falmouth fire stations are each assigned one firefighter, the North Falmouth and East Falmouth fire stations are each assigned two firefighters, and four firefighters are assigned to the fire department headquarters on Main Street.
As of July 1, six firefighters will be assigned to the headquarters on Main Street, four will be assigned to East Falmouth, and two firefighters will be assigned to the Woods Hole and North Falmouth stations. The West Falmouth fire station will not be staffed.
“This balances the resource deployment across the geographic regions of town,” Chief Small said.
He acknowledged that the fire department headquarters and East Falmouth fire station have more firefighters than the rest of town. Approximately 80 percent of emergency calls are in the East Falmouth or headquarters region.
While this change comes following an agreement with the firefighter’s union, Chief Small said the union is not to blame for the pending closure of the West Falmouth fire station.
“It is by mutual agreement by the Town of Falmouth and the firefighters union that this 43-year-old staffing plan that we use, and we’ve been using, ceases to exist,” Chief Small said. “Keep in mind, last year we responded to 8,159 calls in the Town of Falmouth, which averages to 22.4 calls per day, as opposed to the 1,700 we did when this plan, this staffing configuration, was implemented.”
He said the new staffing plan is the best he can do with available staffing resources.
In addition to an override, Mr. Suso said, town administration is considering other options to serve the community.
“A second option, a potential option to improve service levels and operate the West Falmouth station when possible, is by offering two voluntary 24-hour overtime shifts every day,” he said. “We would be doing that in cooperation with our colleagues in the firefighters union.”
While two firefighters can staff the West Falmouth fire station, he said, its size prevents it from housing a modern engine.
“Currently, it is dependent on a 25-year-old reserve engine with a limited useful life,” Mr. Suso said.
Finance committee member Nicholas S. Lowell said the Fiscal Year 2021 operational budget was prepared prior to this discussion, and does not include funding to staff overtime firefighters at the West Falmouth fire station. Ms. Mullen acknowledged that the fire department overtime budget was level-funded for FY 2021.
“If we need to, we will go [to Town Meeting] in November for supplemental funding,” she said.
Mr. Suso said the town could also consider contracting with a private ambulance service to serve the town. This would require bargaining with the union and approval from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. If the town hires a private ambulance service, it cannot be restricted to the West Falmouth area.
The town can also consider applying for funds from the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grant program. If applied for, a SAFER grant would be in addition to the proposed override. SAFER grant funds supplement the cost of hiring a new firefighter, providing a town with a 75 percent reimbursement for two years and a 35 percent reimbursement in the third year. By the fourth year the position would be fully implemented into the operational budget, Ms. Mullen said.
Ms. English Braga encouraged those at Tuesday’s forum to consider applying for the citizens advisory committee to examine future locations for a new fire station. As of the January 13 board of selectmen meeting, five people had applied to serve on the nine member committee. The committee is tasked with evaluating potential locations for a new fire station in town.
“We really want this advisory group to be successful and have a lot of voices to add to the conversation,” Ms. English Braga said.