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Mutual aid masking firefighter shortages, staffing at all fire departments falls below national standards

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Many Seacoast-area fire departments now rely heavily on mutual aid from neighboring towns to meet call demand, a circumstance some attribute to understaffed departments.

The National Fire Protection Association has reported that fire departments across the nation lack adequate staffing, and many Seacoast-area fire departments are no different.

David Lang, president of the Professional Firefighters of New Hampshire, which represents 42 local unions, said there is a point when it makes financial sense to use overtime to maintain shift strength. But once a community hits a staffing shortage tipping point, it financially makes more sense to hire additional personnel. Much of that, Lang said, is the responsibility of elected officials to recognize.

“There is no state law as to what a fire department looks like,” Lang said. “But there is a law that if you have a fire department, you’re required to do it right.”

In New Hampshire, mutual aid is a state law. In order to receive mutual aid, a department must be able to give it. Many communities, due to understaffing, rely on mutual aid to meet their regular call volume.

The Exeter Fire Department was counting on a new firefighter position outlined in the proposed town budget, but the Board of Selectmen voted against it last week due to union contract issues. The Fire Department said the need is now, but board members argued they wanted a formal agreement with the union about which shifts this particular firefighter position would target.

Assistant Fire Chief Erik Wilking said Exeter has requested mutual aid from neighboring towns 92 times in 2016, which he said highlighted the need for additional staffing.

Wilking said Exeter leans heavily on North Hampton and Kingston, noting that North Hampton Fire Chief Michael Tully said he has seen quite an increase in calls to Exeter over the last year. One-third of North Hampton’s total mutual aid calls this year were to Exeter.

“We feel we’re utilizing our mutual aid partners to a degree that is a little bit unfair,” Wilking said at the board meeting.

The Exeter firefighters union, Local 3491, President Ryan Booth said at most of the 2016 mutual aid calls, Exeter was not even on scene because they did not have the staff available, meaning other towns were the sole responders to Exeter emergencies. This is not uncommon for towns that have fewer firefighters per shift. Many times, Exeter has to call personnel back from an ongoing call to respond to a second emergency, or even call in off-duty personnel.

“It’s a disservice to the taxpayers,” Booth said.

Exeter Fire Chief Brian Comeau said the department is not meeting its community obligations, and he is concerned.

The issue raises questions over dependence on mutual aid. While mutual aid provides a safety net to potentially understaffed communities, it can mask staffing shortages.

Dover Fire Chief Eric Hagman said, “Mutual aid shouldn’t be used to meet your normal demand.”

Dover has three fire stations and has 13 people on duty each day. While Dover Fire represents more of a city model, Hagman said his department is only equipped to handle so many emergencies.

“In our system, we can handle three emergencies at the same time,” Hagman said. “Generally we need mutual aid when we have a major fire or if we have four or five emergencies at once.”

Hagman said that, according to national standards, 15 people should respond to a standard fire. Even Dover, which responds to emergencies 5,700 times a year between fire and medical, does not usually meet that standard.

For a town like Exeter, which has only four to five personnel per shift, that national standard is a long way away.

“No community in the Seacoast really ever arrives with that number of people,” Hagman said. “It all comes down to what dollars are available and what level of protection citizens want in their community from their own staffing.”

In fact, Lang, of the Professional Firefighters of New Hampshire, said Laconia and Nashua are the only two New Hampshire communities that meet the recommended national standard.

Hagman said that while towns cannot rely on mutual aid, it is an essential system for many emergencies.

“You can get a wind-driven fire during a storm that gets four buildings going,” Hagman said. “Fifteen communities may need to respond to that. Mutual aid is a very good system.”

For example, 15 fire departments responded to a massive fire at the historic Tarbell house on Portsmouth Avenue in New Castle in January. In October, a three-alarm fire hit the Hampton Beach Casino complex with 17 departments responding.

In Hampton, the fire department received mutual aid 71 times in 2016, according to Fire Chief Jameson Ayotte.

“Hampton is a growing town,” Ayotte said. “We have the appropriate staff to get the first ambulance out the door and sometimes the second. We often don’t fill the third ambulance and call for mutual aid then.”

Hampton has a swing population, with 15,000 residing in town year-round and nearly 100,000 people at the beach in the summertime. Ayotte said even with the summer’s influx of people, the department does not increase staffing.

“We rely on callbacks,” Ayotte said, where they call off-duty personnel to the station. “We have a significant amount. It’s a challenge.”

Ayotte noted that hiring a new firefighter is very expensive, and a new set of gear alone costs nearly $3,000.

While Ayotte acknowledged that mutual aid isn’t something a department should use often, he said the Seacoast’s network, which is formally called the Seacoast Chief Fire Officers Mutual Aid District, is “special.”

“It’s important to understand that as mutual aid communities, the ability to respond to each other’s needs is not necessarily something experienced everywhere,” he said.

In addition, today’s fire departments respond to an array of emergency situations.

“Years ago the fire service was for fire only,” Lang said, “But now it’s developed into a several-hat theory. There are all kinds of different things your department has to be prepared for.” Lang cited rescue, medical emergency, hazardous materials and an active shooter situation as some examples.

“You have to prepare for an active shooter situation in today’s environment,” he said. “In Brentwood and South Hampton, we’ve had these situations come up. The heroin/fentanyl epidemic is also taxing tremendously our resources. These are the things we think about.”

Lang said ultimately it boils down to community obligation.

“We have an obligation in the fire service to talk more openly about what effective and efficient fire and EMS response is,” he said. “Elected officials have a responsibility to protect the public. They pay the fire department to do research, be prepared and be ready. And to not heed that advice, I guess you can draw your own conclusions from that. This is something that should be listened to.”

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