The West Falmouth Fire Station will close in July—leaving the Town of Falmouth with four fire stations—because of an agreement between the town and International Association of Fire Fighters Local 1397 stating that at least two fire/rescue personnel must be on a single piece of equipment before responding to a call.
Falmouth Fire Rescue Chief Michael F. Small announced this to 75 people at West Falmouth Library last Thursday, October 17, during a contentious community meeting about a potential northwest fire station.
West Falmouth’s station typically has one fire/rescue person on duty at a time, Chief Small said.
While the meeting’s stated purpose was to review the initial data on consolidating the West Falmouth and North Falmouth fire stations, much of the discussion—at times heated in tone—focused on the issue of the West Falmouth station’s closing and the safety of that village’s residents.
Town Manager Julian M. Suso introduced Donald Markowski, a senior consultant for McGrath Consulting Group, who presented a preliminary feasibility report to seek comments before finalizing any recommendations.
Also in attendance were Assistant Town Manager Peter Johnson-Staub and Selectmen chairwoman Megan E. English Braga.
The nearly 90-year-old West Falmouth station, on 0.2 acres at 555 West Falmouth Highway, is “completely inadequate” to meet the department’s needs, Chief Small said.
“It is too small for modern fire apparatus. It has no modern diesel exhaust system, no storage, no separate male and female facilities, no ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act] compliance and no fire sprinkler systems,” he said.
A diesel exhaust system would protect personnel from airborne carcinogens from vehicles. Cancer rates are high among firefighters; this has been a significant cost for the department and the community, Mr. Markowski said.
“This is the first time in 400 studies in 40 states that I’ve ever heard of a one-person fire engine. Typically it’s three, occasionally two,” Mr. Markowski said.
By comparison, the 70-year-old North Falmouth station, which will remain operational, is on 0.2 acres at 204 Old Main Road and has deficiencies similar to those at West Falmouth.
“North Falmouth is approaching the end of its life and is barely adequate,” Chief Small said. “The men and women of the fire department deserve better than being in a 90- or 70-year-old building that is lacking all those modern accoutrements. We have extremely limited staffing; we don’t have enough resources to staff five stations.”
North Falmouth typically has two people on duty at a time.
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Five percent of the total runs over the past three years came from West Falmouth, with 12 percent coming from North Falmouth.
“Come July 1, 2020, with the contractual agreement with the firefighters union, the one-person responses in the Town of Falmouth are gone and are not coming back,” Chief Small said. “This does not mean two people at each station; there must be two people on a piece of equipment before it responds to a call.”
The issue has been on the department’s radar screen for a long time. The new agreement will require a significant change in deployment models, Chief Small said.
Falmouth added seven firefighter positions to the department between Fiscal Years 2017 and 2020, Mr. Suso said, adding it would take five years to build a new station.
Each cross-trained firefighter costs about $85,000 in salary and benefits each year, Mr. Johnson-Staub said.
The feasibility study uses actual run data to identify locations where the fire department has responded and overlays travel times to evaluate potential locations for a new northwest fire station, Mr. Suso said.
A location on Sandwich Road north of Brick Kiln Road is currently the most advantageous, the McGrath data indicate, the town manager said.
“This study will illustrate travel time implications of five general locations. It will not evaluate specific parcels of land the town owns or might acquire, or estimate the cost of construction,” he said.
The updated study will be presented to selectmen later this year, and November Town Meeting voters will consider securing an option to purchase a parcel of land in a location to be determined, the town manager said.
The fire department currently operates out of five stations, all of which are considered adequate or better except for West Falmouth, Mr. Markowski said.
Headquarters at 399 Main Street in Falmouth has daily staffing of four personnel certified as firefighters and cross-trained as paramedics or emergency medical technicians. Station 2 at 419 Woods Hole Road, along with Station 5 at 505 East Falmouth Highway, has two people on duty at a time.
The call volume has increased 33 percent from 6,011 in 2008 to 8,002 in 2018, Mr. Markowski said.
Between January 2016 and December 2018 there were on average 90 fire calls per year, which represent 1.17 percent of the total calls compared with 4.7 percent nationally.
Seventy-eight percent of calls were rescue or medical in nature, compared with 64 percent nationally, with a three-year average of 6,002 calls.
“There are national standards, but it comes down to what does the community support,” Mr. Markowski said, adding that a northwest station on Sandwich Road north of Brick Kiln Road would lead to a response rate of 78 percent within four minutes of travel time. “If the station were relocated to Nathan Ellis Highway or Route 151, 36 percent of incidents would be within four minutes travel time.”
Marc P. Finneran of Trotting Park Road, Falmouth, asked how many additional staff members would be needed to achieve the five-station model.
The fire department has asked for eight new firefighters in its newest budget, which would provide one officer and two to three firefighters at each of four stations, Chief Small said, noting every station goes to every part of town every day.
Arthur Hawkes of West Falmouth mentioned a 1951 study that recommended building a fire station in Hatchville and asked why the department has not hired more staff.
The McGrath data recommends the Sandwich Road location, Mr. Suso said, and answering the staffing question “depends on what you want your number to be and what you want to pay, what people are willing to fund and how many stations you want built.”
“We’re making our best efforts to live generally within our means. It’s not going to double or triple overnight without an extraordinary infusion of revenue from the taxpayers of this town,” the town manager said.
When asked why the department will not have two firefighters in West Falmouth, Chief Small said it is not a good use of department resources and the money is not there to pay for the necessary staff.
Mr. Hawkes said West Falmouth has “an aging population who come here to live and retire” and feel “confident and protected” by having a fire station in their village.
“This fire chief believes that Falmouth is best served by five fire stations. I firmly believe that the north and west parts of town can be covered by a properly sited and a properly staffed fire station,” Chief Small said. “What you’ve enjoyed in West Falmouth over the last 50 years is one person responding in a fire truck, and I will be more than willing to debate anyone in this room who wants to engage with me on the efficacy and the advantage of having that. That is not effective.”
There is no advantage to a one-person response in terms of firefighting and rescue, Chief Small said.
“It’s been a myth for a very long time. It’s not just West Falmouth. Every station in Falmouth responds to a call with one person at some given time in 365 days a year,” he said. “It’s totally inadequate and incredibly unsafe for the firefighters. Unsafe firefighters equal unsafe residents. However, that stops July 1 and it’s not coming back. It’s incredibly wasteful on overtime, and it has buried the dispatch center.”
When asked why the Woods Hole station would not be closed, since it handled only 4 percent of 22,581 total calls over three years, Chief Small said it is a modern station in an area that has hundreds of thousands of visitors each summer.
Daniel H. Shearer of Old Dock Road, West Falmouth, said he is concerned that if he had a serious health issue, rescue would not reach him in time if the West Falmouth station went away.
“It’s a false sense of security, and it has to stop July 1, 2020,” Chief Small said.