WHITMAN — Fire Chief Timothy Grenno is again seeking additional firefighters with EMT or paramedic/EMT certification for the department in his fiscal 2018 budget — this time only three — in an effort to deal with steadily increasing call volumes and a staffing level that has not changed since 1965.
Two years ago, Grenno had asked for eight additional firefighters, but the department did not receive the grant funding sought to pay a portion of that effort.
This year’s request, which will cost an estimated $292,700 including benefits for the three firefighters, will enable the fire department to add a firefighter to each shift to increase safety, fire response and patient care outcomes, Grenno argued.
While noting that a part override more than 12 years ago failed, as did the grant application two years ago, Grenno said he is seeking the funding for the new firefighters outside the levy limit.
“All I’m asking for is to let the taxpayers have the final say in this eventually,” Grenno said. Selectmen are expected to vote on Town Meeting warrant articles within the next few weeks.
Grenno is seeking a separate override question if there is a school override put before the voters.
At $292,648 — rounded up to $292,700— he said the tax rate impact would be 19 cents per $1,000 valuation or $56.18 increase in a tax bill on an average home of $291,413.
“I’m not trying to meet national standards, I’m not trying to get the big pie in the sky, I’m just trying to get us so that the majority of people that we see and the majority of responses that we go to are fair and equitable across the board,” he said. “This is a goal to increase efficiency, productivity and patient care.”
Grenno made his presentation to the Board of Selectmen and Finance Committee on Tuesday, Jan. 24, a week after his official budget presentation to the Finance Committee.
Selectman Daniel Salvucci asked if the cost for the new firefighters could be funded within the levy limit.
“[It] sounds like a lot of money,” Salvucci said. “But it isn’t a lot of money in one way.”
Town Administrator Frank Lynam said insurance costs, the school budget and other line items are expected to increase and the only way to meet Grenno’s request is to increase the levy limit.
Lynam said, since Whitman is a residential community with 93 percent of revenues coming from residents’ taxes, people must decide what kind of community they want to be.
“That’s all I’m asking,” Grenno said. “As fire chief, my job is to come before you and present the state of the fire side of public safety in the town. … I’m not in the ballgame to take from other people’s budgets.”
Lynam said all the town’s fixed costs increase each year by 4 to 5 percent.
“The only thing that enables us to keep up with it is the combination of growth and increases in the levy limit,” Lynam said. We’re not expecting to see much support from the state. … This is our job.”
Finance Committee Chairman Michael Minchello said he and Grenno have also talked about that, but there is a concern within his committee about overtime costs.
“I totally understand where the Finance Committee is coming from,” Grenno said. “Their job is money, my job is public safety and we have a very difficult time — and sometimes can’t do it — with five people a shift.”
The Whitman Fire Department became a full-time service in 1965 with five members per shift. In 1973, with an ambulance service added to the department, staffing levels remained at five per shift, where they remain today.
In 1965 call volume for both fire and medical emergencies was 496 runs during the year. Last year, call volume was up to 2,664 runs.
Medical emergencies make up 64 percent of all responses.
When calls come in, priority EMS calls — chest pain, shortness of breath, seizures and overdoses, for example — all five firefighters on a shift respond. For non-priority first calls — such as orthopedic cases — three firefighters respond, leaving two and possibly a shift commander to respond to subsequent calls, Grenno explained.
“We’re pretty good [on national treatment standards] on the first call out the door — four persons, most critical task, at least 80 seconds faster,” he said. “Four people on a priority call is the ultimate. Three is OK, two persons is substantially less. Second EMS calls or EMS calls secondary to a fire incident are somewhere between the three and two-person less effectiveness in patient care.
“That’s where we stand today and, to me, that is unacceptable,” Grenno said. Last summer, the department had to respond to an overdose call with one firefighter aided by police officers.
In the past three years there have been two house fires that caused $100,000 damage, but Grenno said the damage could have been limited to $20,000 to $25,000 with full staffing available.
Last year, the fire station was empty 18 percent of the time due to call volume, with subsequent calls dependent on mutual aid, which helps but takes from 20 minutes to an hour to get to a call.
Patient demographics have also “changed substantially,” Grenno said, and include Baby Boomers hesitant to call for help until a more serious condition develops, and another group “who call us for everything.”
The call-back system for summoning off-duty firefighters is also a problem due to second jobs, or family demands when a spouse has to go to work.
Minchello asked if Grenno had given thought to sending four members out on priority cases, as required by the national safety standards, instead of five. Grenno said that has been considered, but would break up a two-person engine company, which is also against safety standards.
The department’s current policy is, when secondary calls come in, if personnel have to go by the station they pick up the extra ambulance. Many secondary calls, however, occur in the same area to which the first response was dispatched.
Minchello also asked about past plans to fund new staffing from the ambulance account.
Grenno explained that the Governor’s Task Force for Health Insurance, to reduce costs across the state, met recently with the Legislature’s Health Committee without representatives of public safety, hospitals, private ambulance companies invited. Only insurance company representatives were in attendance to look at cutting health insurance costs and are beginning to look at pre-hospitalization services such as ambulance services and walk-in clinics. One of the proposals is to reduce ambulance transport coverage Medicare and Medicaid rates across the board, and the department is losing money in that new practice.
“That would be devastating to our department,” Grenno said.