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Groton Firefighters' Letter To Select Board on Staffing

Dear Select Board Members,

Over the summer, the Town embarked on a study of the Fire Department to determine the appropriate staffing levels based on the request of our Chief. At first the membership of the Department felt positive about this process and looked forward to an assessment sometime in the fall. The timeframe for the committee was then extended to include a public forum on December 11, 2018. 

   At this December forum numerous members of the Department were present to participate in the discussion and learn specifically what was being worked on. During the forum the Committee was very dismissive of the opinions of both the general public as well as those of the Fire Department membership. During a particular segment of the discussion a Committee member stated that basic EMT’s were there only for “comfort”. This is an incredibly careless and ignorant statement that has shown the true value the Committee has for the Fire Department and its members. These words have reverberated through the Department and present an image that the Committee minimizes our value.  

   It is our belief that the staffing issue significantly impacts two groups.  First are those individuals who will call on the services provided by the Fire Department, and the second are men and women that this town relies on to provide the knowledge, skills, and labor that allow the Fire Department to function. We believe the Committee has lost touch with the larger goal of providing the Town with the best possible emergency medical care and fire services, and instead focuses on minute details.

   We are especially disheartened to hear that since the public forum, the Committee has now shifted discussion to outsourcing EMS response during the overnight period to a private service.  The Committee has previously vocalized their commitment to maintaining a call force to augment the full-time staff, but outsourcing EMS response is a direct contradiction to this sentiment.  It appears that the Committee is getting further off-course.

   In an attempt to ensure that the voice of our membership is heard, we have produced the included report detailing our support for increasing the career staffing levels to enable the Fire Department to transition to a model of operation that includes 24-hour shift coverage by career staff that is supported by paid on call personnel.  This report cites direct peer-review research, industry standards, and local agency comparison, perspectives we would have hoped the Committee would have incorporated in their review.

Respectfully submitted,

The Members of the Groton Fire Department

 

Highlights from the Report – Full Report on Grotonherald.com 

 

Why is it Needed Now?

   The best way to answer the question of why the move to a 24-hour career staffing model is needed now, is that it will alleviate some of the strain on your paid on-call staff. The clearest analogy is if you think of our call department as a fiberglass pole. At rest the pole is straight and under no stress and is not in danger of breaking.  As you begin to bend and stress the pole it can withstand a certain amount of flexing without issue. This stress has been applied to our on-call workforce through an increase in call volume, an increase in required training and education, and a decrease in volunteerism.  

  These are national trends, not unique to Groton or Massachusetts, but stresses to the system that we must, nonetheless, acknowledge and address. We are now seeing the stress and the fibers of this pole are now showing. 

   The first stressor we will look at is the volume of calls answered by the Department annually. This numbers grows due to many factors including the growth of the town, population growth, and increases in services provided to name a few. In 2018 the Fire Department responded to 1,302 calls for service, this is an increase of over 16% since 2012 when the last increase in staff prior to 2018 occurred.  

   The second is the volume of training required for on call personnel. The amount of training required for fire and EMS personnel both career and on call is driven by the need for employees to remain proficient in the delivery of services in many disciplines including EMS, fire suppression, auto extrication, hazardous materials, and active threat response, to name a few.

  The type and amount of training needed is based on the services provided by the Fire Department and follows the directives established by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), Department of Transportation (DOT), Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), Office of Emergency Medical Services (OEMS). 

Emergency Medical Technician Training:

• 120 – 180 hours, Initial certification

• 40 hours, Continuing education every 2 years

• 2 hours, Case reviews held monthly

• 3 hours, CPR annually

• 2-3 hours, monthly Department training

Fire Fighter Training

• 240 hours, Massachusetts Fire Fighting Academy Call Volunteer Recruit Program, or the in-house equivalent offered by GFD when available

• 2-3 hours, monthly department trainings

•24 hours, annual OSHA training

In addition to the program detailed above members also seek out training through outside sources such as the Massachusetts Fire Fighting Academy along with other agencies to increase their knowledge and skill proficiency in specific topics of their choosing.

   The third is increases in time demands by family and work felt by our on call staff. While we are unable to specifically identify or quantify the exact time demands or increase in those demands, we should all be able to agree by reflecting on our own schedules and lives that this time crunch is a real concern. We can however point to some data that supports these beliefs such as the volume of uncovered EMT shifts during the nighttime hours. During 2018 the Groton Fire Department had a 30% vacancy rate in the overnight EMS shift coverage. Meaning that  30% of last year was not covered by at least the minimum of two EMTs needed to complete a medical transport. 

     The final stressor identified above is a declining number of people volunteering. This is a national issue that the Town of Groton is not immune to. This decline has been documented as affecting agencies across the country and this issue is a constant theme of many articles in trade magazines. While total recruitment numbers for the Fire Department continue to decline, under the current administration the Department has been retaining the majority of recruits that complete their initial training requirements.

Service Improvements

   By adding two additional fulltime Firefighters the Department would be able to transition to staffing the station 24 hours a day with two personnel. This change would have several beneficial effects on department operations, such as: 

•Reduced response times, night time responses would follow times only achieved during the day currently, with a reduction five minutes 31 seconds on average guarantee of response, with 24- hour coverage the Department can guarantee at least one piece of apparatus can be staffed

• Replication of process, a 24- hour shift model allows for standardizing response models ensuring Department SOP’s are followed day-to-day 

• Institutional knowledge, with an ever growing number of homes and businesses fulltime staff quickly outpace on-call staff for knowing and learning construction types, alarm systems, utilities shutoff locations, ongoing or repeat issues within structures or developments

Staffing Models

  The staffing model deployed by the Department has been developed and modified over time to insert career staff to address short falls in availability of the paid on-call personnel. The inverse of this also remains true: there is still a need for of an active on-call department to fill in the gaps and limitations of having minimal career staff.  This staffing model is used by the majority of area fire departments including Ayer, Westford, Littleton, Shirley, Pepperell, and Townsend.  

   During the 6 a.m.-6 p.m. hours, the career stff covers approximately 69% of the Department’s total call volume, with an average response time of six minutes and five seconds. 

  Conversely, during the hours of 6PM – 6AM, the on-call staff covers the remaining 31% of the total volume, with an average a response time of 11 minutes and 37 seconds

   The data highlights the contrast in response time between day and night. While the on-call staff provides a dedicated and professional service during the evening hours the built-in lag of responding from their homes to the station for apparatus after being dispatch builds in an additional five minutes and 31 seconds of response time simply based on the time of day.

   Currently, the Department deploys the majority of the career staff over the busiest portion of a 24-hour cycle from 6 a.m. – 6 p.m., with a single career firefighter working at the station until 8PM when the station then shuts down staffed operations. The paid on-call shifts cover 6 p.m.-6 a.m. with their response coming from home or another location in town to the station as calls require. The night shift covered by the paid on-call personnel are split into two shifts of six hours each covering from 6 p.m. -12 p.m. and 12 a.m.-6 a.m.  Each shift may have up to three EMTs and one Fire Officer, to fill this program to capacity it requires the voluntary completion of 42 EMT shifts along with 14 Fire Officer shifts each week. 

Response Times

   The Town needs to independently decide the level of coverage that is acceptable and desired by its residents and businesses, and then staff a model that allows the Fire Department to provide services at that level. We fully support a 24/7 model augmented by paid on call staff as what the Town should be seeking as the basic level of coverage for Groton.  We believe that this model will be supported by town voters because we hear from so many residents that they already believe 24/7 coverage exist. 

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