Local Fire Chiefs Say Staffing Challenges are Creating Public Risk

Brewster Fire/CWN

ORLEANS – Firefighters were stretched thin December 9 when an early morning fire at the Christmas Tree Shops in Orleans coincided with a local medical call demanding the attention of all on-duty Orleans Fire Department units.

Though no injuries were reported, it’s an issue local fire chiefs say is becoming more and more common and is putting the public at risk.

Orleans Fire Chief Geof Deering said a typical day sees four to five firefighters on duty, though the department has seen increasing call volumes and a concerning rise in simultaneous incidents.

“We have some data to suggest that 30% to 40% of the time, we have at least two calls going on. And with four people, we don’t have sufficient personnel to manage those calls without either calling in personnel from home, which doesn’t always happen, or relying on mutual aid,” said Deering.

He says that the lack of staff is a Cape-wide issue, but Orleans is hit particularly hard by it, oftentimes calling in assistance from other towns more often than it provides help to others.

“That’s where it becomes problematic, because it’s not completely ‘mutual.’”

Brewster Chief Robert Moran said that like other industries across the Cape struggling to find employees, the issue can be traced back to lack of affordable housing.

“Housing costs in this region are out of control,” said Moran.

He says both new and veteran firefighters have trouble affording local real estate costs, including rentals. In Orleans, median real estate prices are around $1 million dollars.

“This is something that is a daily issue that all fire chiefs in this region and other areas of the Cape are specifically dealing with.”

Fire departments typically have a living distance requirement for its employees to ensure timely response for call-ins, however Moran says that the rule is simply untenable for their situation.

“Quite frankly, we can’t follow it, because if we followed it, we would lose some employees,” said Moran.

Deering said his department was unable to fully abide by the mileage policy as well.

On top of housing, both chiefs said it is also difficult to compete with other fire departments off Cape that are able to offer more competitive wages without the struggle to find a home for what oftentimes are young families looking to grow.

With the size of departments strangled by housing and competition off-Cape, the chiefs said that everything from response time, equipment maintenance and training all become more challenging.

Deering said he intends to request eight more firefighter positions in the next fiscal year, bringing the on-duty staff up to 6 personnel for each of the four shifts, though the town would have to find a funding mechanism for the new staff.

Moran said that federal assistance is also available, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant specifically for hiring new firefighters for departments suffering from staffing issues.

Brewster applied in 2018 a SAFER grant, getting funding for two firefighters for three years who remain with the department. The recipient town becomes responsible for their wages and benefits at the end of the three years.

Deering said that Orleans is also pursuing a potential SAFER grant, but won’t know whether the department has been approved for it until the fall of next year. 

However even with federal aid, affordable housing availability remains a limiter. 

In Brewster, Moran says he is hoping for the recently acquired Sea Camps property to help alleviate the problem by becoming a site for workforce housing.

He also applauded the work of Assistant Town Administrator Donna Kalinick and Housing Coordinator Jill Scalise, who Moran says have taken big strides in helping local families find homes. 

The state also provides affordable housing initiatives that Moran hopes to see expanded to better serve emergency response personnel, as firefighters are currently paid an amount just above the qualifying figure.

In the meantime, Moran says the department will have a third party conduct a needs study that could help highlight the issue to local lawmakers and state legislators. 

“I speak of firefighters, but it’s also teachers, it’s police officers, it’s public safety and education staff and personnel from across the Cape. Living close to where your job is located is critically important,” said Moran.

About Grady Culhane

Grady Culhane is a Cape Cod native from Eastham. He studied media communications at Cape Cod Community College and joined the CapeCod.com News Center in 2019.

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