Fire Task Force’s Final Report Prompts Wide-Ranging Discussion
[Ed. Note: The full report of the Fire Department Task Force is available at grotonherald.com]
by Connie Sartini
Three members of the Fire Department Task Force - Chairman Peter Myette, John Kane and Ryan Monat, met with the Select Board to discuss their final report on the hiring of two additional Firefighter/EMTs for the Groton Fire Department. Myette advised that the vote taken by the Task Force was 4 – 1, with Myette, Kane, Monat and An Hee Foley voting in favor of hiring the two additional personnel, while member Jenifer Evans voted against it.
Member John Kane recommended that efforts be concentrated on the Call Fire staffing in the department, “attracting and keeping a call staff is not just a problem in Groton but also nationally. We’ve seen this since 2003 when we went from an all call fire department to seven, full-time firefighter/EMTs. It is our recommendation that this is a bigger problem than just the Fire Chief’s; it’s a town problem.” He suggested first to “double down” on getting more resources and secondly to recruit more women.
The Task Force is suggesting formation of another ad hoc committee that includes a member of the Select Board, Finance Committee and Human Resources to look at additional ways to attract and keep call firefighters possibly including health insurance and higher pay. “I’d like to see the ad hoc committee with a real marketing plan to consistently get the message out to the town” and find ways to get more members.
Chairman Myette advised, “The Committee took on a life of its own. We engaged the community
on only one occasion,” adding that the feedback then was strong that the attendees wanted a 24x7 department. “It came back strong that they wanted fire protection.”
Finance Committee member Bud Robertson pointed out that in one part of the report it showed that the total expense for the on-call firefighters was $233K, and further on in the report, there was discussion of outsourcing overnight coverage which would result in a loss of $100K in revenue for the town. He asked, “Isn’t this about hiring two full-time firefighter/EMTs for $100K. If we go outside for an ambulance is would be $100K and what would happen to our on-call firemen?”
He added that the comparison is $150K for two, full-time firefighters versus an outside ambulance for $100K, but “what’s the difference in response time?”
Select Board member John Giger advised, “The cost to bring in a contractor ambulance at night has a lot of loose variables. Do we lose the training of our firefighter/EMTs?” He added that the ambulance service number should be viewed as directional.
Robertson said, “It is close no matter which way we do it. It looks from the recommendation in the memo that there was limited feedback.”
Task Force Member Kane told the Board that he voted in favor of adding two new firefighter/EMTs. “I don’t think the committee did the analysis regarding engaging citizens.” He pointed out that the sole discussion was at the only public meeting. “This was the engagement and this is what I heard.”
Selectman Josh Degen noted that by outsourcing ambulance services, the town would be losing not just $100K but also losing the faster response time if it were in-house. “If we can increase Firefighters/EMS and if it can save one life, it’s important. Yes, it is a cost to the community. People have to travel to jobs. We can work as hard as we can to recruit and like some towns hit a threshold.”
Robertson said, “People vote for better protection and will pay for them. We are not arguing that outside is better or worse. I think inside is better.”
Finance Committee Chairman Gary Green said he backed up comments from Degen and Robertson, pointing out that “emergency services is a matter of managing risks,” adding that he would love to know the right answer, but “is not convinced that two (additional firefighter/EMTs) is the right answer.”
Kane pointed out that the September 2017 assessment of the Fire Department by Municipal Resources recommended the addition of four firefighters spread over a period of time, and a goal of a 50-person on-call group with a waiting list.
Myette pointed out that the Task Force could have gone on for another year but “we didn’t have the time.” Colleague Ryan Monat added that a lot of the committee’s work was to bring all the members up to speed. He added that there was a need for better response data from mutual aid. Chief McCurdy agreed, noting, “We had the data but were not sure of its accuracy.”
Finance Committee member Art Prest pointed out that the average response time doubled between staffed and unstaffed time periods. “If a staffed response is three to five minutes, unstaffed could be 14 to 15 minutes. Yes, it’s emotional. The Fire Department saved my life. If you look at the overall cost, it comes to $55 per year, and is an absolute bargain.” He added that the numbers used throughout the report should have been medians instead of averages, as averages can be misleading.
Giger asked, “If we extended the Committee for another year, would it be different? I wonder if we got all the work together, could we make a rational decision?”
Degen thanked the Committee. “We pushed the timeline and you met it.” He stressed, “Year after year after year the Fire Chief has asked for more help. The cost to the community is the same. All you did is verify what the Chief has said and it makes my decision much easier.”
Select Board Chairman Barry Pease pointed out that the reality is that fire safety, police safety and schools are basic services. “The Town decides what it wants to pay for, and I am comfortable with the recommendation of two.” He added, “I am happy to see it move forward….We should recommend to the town two more firefighter/EMTs.”
Chief McCurdy stressed that this will give the Department more depth in staffing, and reduce burnout because of a larger pool of firefighter/EMTs to cover shifts. He pointed out a situation at the department where personnel worked 22, straight, 12-hour shifts. “It was unsafe as we didn’t have enough people to rotate through.” He added that the town of Littleton had experienced the same problem.
Pease asked McCurdy, “In your judgment, these two Firefighter/EMTs will give you enough depth to off-set vacation time, sick time, injury?” and McCurdy replied, “Yes.”