Getting Answers: increase in calls impacting fire departments

Local fire departments are seeing an unprecedented rise in calls while staffing remains flat.
Published: Nov. 21, 2022 at 5:55 PM EST|Updated: Nov. 21, 2022 at 9:50 PM EST
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NORTHAMPTON, MA (WGGB/WSHM) - Local fire departments are seeing an unprecedented rise in calls while staffing remains flat. One firefighters’ union is calling for an increase in staffing and another department has added positions, but they can’t find qualified candidates to fill them.

“Since we’ve come out of the tail end of COVID, things have continued to increase at a rate that will eventually be unsustainable for the amount of staffing that we have,” said Tim Putnam, president of Local 108.

At the Northampton Fire Department, 65 firefighters, 13 to a shift, respond to an average of 26 calls per day.

“We did over 800 calls last month. About a year ago at this month, it was 100 less and there’s been no changes in our staffing since that time,” Putnam added.

Putnam said this year’s call volume of 6,877 is on track to outpace 2021′s record-breaking year of 7,645 calls, which was a significant jump from 6,733 calls in 2020. The vast majority of the calls are for medical emergencies, not fires.

Last year, Northampton firefighters responded to 52 fires and 5,701 medical calls. This past October alone, there were just three fires and 599 medical responses, which is an all-time high.

“We’re going to come and we’re going to continue to provide the high-level of service that we always have, but with the increase in calls, there can be delays,” Putnam explained.

In fact, while the response time for fires is on track with last year’s average at five minutes and 52 seconds, EMS response times in October were about a half-a-minute slower than last year’s average at nearly seven minutes. The data from local departments also shows that despite more medical calls, a growing percentage of patients are not being transferred to hospitals.

“They seem to call more for more things,” said Amherst Fire Chief Tim Nelson.

Nelson said after a dip in calls over the pandemic, people seem to be calling more than ever, even if symptoms are not severe enough to land them in the hospital. In October, Amherst saw a record 756 calls, including 495 EMS calls. Thirty percent of the patients did not need an EMS transport.

“Now, over the last eight to ten months, we’re seeing a jump back to pre-COVID numbers. In fact, we’re going beyond that,” Nelson added.

Nelson’s department has 45 firefighters and four much-needed positions were added last year.

“…But as is throughout the world, you can’t find folks to fill those positions,” Nelson noted.

The four positions remain vacant as the department struggles to find qualified candidates amid pandemic staffing shortages. As an incentive, the department covers the cost of EMT recertification for candidates and will even hire those still in paramedic school.

“That’s the trend now, so we’re grabbing folks before they get out of school,” Nelson said.

In Northampton, Putnam declined to say how many more firefighters are needed, but that the union and city are currently in contract negotiations as calls continue to rise in Northampton and elsewhere, with the department responding to 400 mutual aid calls last year in towns like Hadley and Hatfield.

“We have taken on more communities over the past couple of years. We’re responding to more calls in those communities. I don’t want to call it a burden, but it’s taxing, it is stretching that staffing level even further,” Putnam said.

Nelson said many veterans of the Gulf War became firefighters and are now aging out 30 years later, exacerbating pandemic staffing shortages that he said will take a few years to recover from.

Training to be a paramedic takes about two years of classroom and in-hospital training and new members of a fire department attend a 12-week training program at the Massachusetts firefighting academy after being hired.