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.