NATICK, MA—A firefighter is concerned about the current staffing level in the Natick Fire Department, calling the situation “unsafe and must stop.”
Derek Dupre, a Natick firefighter and president of Firefighters Local 1707, made that assessment during Thursday’s virtual session of Town Meeting.
Dupre stated the department needs a daily minimum staffing level of 18 firefighters per shift in order to properly man the department’s two ambulances.
Currently, the union estimates that 90% of daily shifts are manned by only 17 firefighters.
“We’re doing the emergency calls, and getting it done for the public. But at what cost?” Dupre said in a Friday phone interview.
A call and email to Fire Chief Mike Lentini requesting comment were not returned.
The department is getting one additional firefighter after Town Meeting voted 123-0 — with one abstention — to approve the department’s $9.3 million operating budget in fiscal 2022, which starts July 1.
However, Dupre said the extra firefighter doesn’t get the daily minimum shift level to 18, because the department often doesn’t have a full complement of staff due to vacancies, vacations and illness.
“It’s a good piece to the puzzle,” Dupre said of the added firefighter. “But it’s not the whole puzzle. We need to increase the minimum staffing level by one.”
Dupre added that achieving a minimum daily shift of 19 is the ultimate goal, because it ensures no firefighting equipment falls below safety standards set by the National Fire Protection Association.
The union’s staffing concern centers on instances when there are two simultaneous emergency calls. In those cases, both ambulances are deployed. One ambulance is staffed with two paramedics, while the second only has one.
That can leave the second ambulance in a difficult spot, the union said, because the one paramedic must immediately respond to a range of crises, including car accidents, drug overdoses, cardiac arrests and diabetic emergencies. The lone paramedic is on-scene until a fire engine company arrives.
In some cases, the union said a firefighter is pulled off an engine so there are two people in the second ambulance in order to transport a victim to the nearest hospital. That leaves one less firefighter at the scene to put out a fire. Dupre said it’s a situation that has played out in the department for the past 20 years.
“You’re robbing Peter to pay Paul,” Dupre said.
The reason it has worked for the past 20 years, Dupre said, is there was an emergency room nearby at Leonard Morse Hospital in Natick.
But that emergency room closed in October, adding time to ambulance trips to the nearest hospital, which is now normally Framingham Union or Newton-Wellesley Hospital.
“The day-to-day operations of the Natick Fire Department have changed due to the closure of the Leonard Morse Hospital emergency room, and that is not addressed in this budget,” Dupre said. “We needed more, and we didn’t get it.”
The approved budget also includes funds to train one Natick firefighter currently classified as an Emergency Medical Technician to become a paramedic. The department’s goal is train one EMT annually to attain paramedic status.
But the union believes that will not solve the staffing shortage that keeps only one paramedic on the second ambulance.
Lentini told Town Meeting it’s difficult to hire paramedics, because they’re in short supply statewide.
Besides the one additional firefighter in the next fiscal year, Lentini told Town Meeting the department wants to hire one firefighter annually over the next three years.
“We will do job the sufficiently over next four years, assuming nothing changes between now and then, which is not likely,” Lentini told Town Meeting. He called the budget approved Thursday night a “good compromise,” given the town’s overall fiscal challenges during the coronavirus pandemic.
“I would like four firefighters, eight firefighters, today,” Lentini said. “But with the town’s budget, I’m trying to be reasonable in asking for additional firefighters.”
The staffing shortage can also be attributed to the pandemic’s disruption of classes at the Massachusetts Firefighting Academy, Lentini said.
There’s also the matter of the West Natick Fire Station, where there’s no ambulance, despite 40% of emergency calls coming from that side of town. Both ambulances are housed at department headquarters downtown.
Lentini told Town Meeting that it’s not possible to put an ambulance in West Natick with a staffing level of 17 per shift. With 18 firefighters, he said it’s possible.
Ultimately, Dupre, who has worked as a Natick firefighter for the past eight years, said the union is committed to working with Lentini and the town to improve staffing.
“The safety of the residents depends on it,” Dupre said.