N.H. Town Refuses Fire Department of Staffing Budget
Jan. 12—EXETER—Members of the Exeter Fire Department are tired.
Returning once again in front of the Board of Selectmen this budget season, the Fire Department declared an extreme understaffing situation with only 24 staff positions managing significant call increases. The town has not added new personnel at the department since 2007, while call growth has risen 32 percent over the last 10 years.
During last year's budget season, selectmen voted not to fund a new firefighter position, board members arguing they wanted a formal agreement with the union about which shifts the particular position would target. On Monday night, a slim majority of selectmen heeded the Fire Department's call and voted 3 to 2 to add two additional firefighter/paramedic positions, totaling $122,693, to the operating budget.
Since the start of the new year, the Exeter Fire Department has received 130 calls, an average of 13 calls per day for a population of over 14,000.
"There is very little or no down time to decompress between calls," reads the latest data packet the department presented to selectmen. "While this may not seem to bother people not associated with emergency services, the cumulative effects of traumatic EMS calls, overdose deaths, CPR on our elderly population and yes of course, firefighting, all cause increased stress, PTSD, depression and sleep deprivation on the firefighters."
In 2016, 77 percent of the department's call volume fell between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m., and it was not uncommon to have two or three calls at the same time. As a result, Exeter has come to rely heavily on mutual aid from surrounding towns.
The town of Exeter is also in the midst of an economic development boom, including both new businesses and housing units. According to the town's Housing Advisory Committee, as of May 2017, 1,180 multi-family units had been built since 2000. The new development is taxing and onerous for emergency services, said Fire Chief Brian Comeau.
"We certainly support all of the economic development that's going on," Comeau said. "But every one of those doors that gets approved in this community is one more door that we have to protect. It's one more family that we have to protect. It's more population, more tax dollars and tax base we have to protect, and we're going at it with the same number of people we did 10 years ago. The calls are increasing and that's why we're asking for the help."
The department's shift strength is currently 6 staffers, and the 24 total Exeter firefighters each average 145 calls annually, more than any community reporting in the state of New Hampshire, according to data collected by the department. The Exeter Fire Department responded to more EMS calls (2,037) and total calls for service (3,485) in 2016 than the communities of Londonderry, Bedford, Hudson, Merrimack and Rochester, all with populations greater than 21,000 and between 32 and 40 fire department staffers.
This year, the town's Budget Recommendations Committee endorsed a public safety study for $50,000 rather than adding firefighter positions in 2018. At Monday's selectmen meeting, Selectman Dan Chartrand was not in favor of adding positions prior to approving a study.
"I think it's a terrible idea," he said. "It's in contravention of everything we've been working towards for over a year." Chartrand said the public safety study would target where the heavy call volume falls, something he felt necessary before adding staff.
Selectwoman Anne Surman felt the department had presented them with the data they needed to add two more positions. "It's 10 years later, things have grown, things have changed," she said. "I don't think we need to study anymore. I think it's time to give this department these two people that they need."
Comeau told the selectmen the intention would be to start the staffers off as floaters, Monday through Friday between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m.
Selectwoman Kathy Corson noted Exeter's aging population as something undoubtedly taxing on the Fire Department. Comeau said 72 percent of their EMS calls are for people 55 and older. Currently, 29.5 percent of total households in Exeter are 65 and older.
"We understand and are certainly not afraid of a study," Comeau said. "But the issue is the timing, where are we going to be in two years call-wise? We see increased injuries, increased time lost to workers' comp because they're working harder and going on more calls. The chance of getting hurt is certainly greater."
Chartrand was still not convinced. "I just think that the town manager and Budget Recommendations Committee have laid out a path forward to try and innovate in this department and really find out how they can do more. It's just not a good decision. I know I'm not going to sway this board. This board is on the verge of ignoring this common sense advice."
"I'm taking the course what I believe is in the best interest of the residents of the town of Exeter," Selectmen Chairman Don Clement answered. "I believe right now we are in a situation where we were understaffed for all of this year. It's going to put our citizens at a greater risk than they are now."
Comeau said he was pleased to have support from the majority of the board on an issue that has spanned over two years now. Over the last year, the department has ramped up its social media presence, using both Twitter and Facebook to alert the general public of their staffing needs and daily calls.
"We need to grow with the community," Comeau said. "That's the checks and balances thing that I think we're struggling with today. It's been 10 years (since we got new staff)."
Assistant Fire Chief Eric Wilking noted as people and businesses consider moving to Exeter, strong emergency services response is as important as the quality of the school system, for example.
"We think these two firefighters and any additional growth that we decide has to happen is just keeping pace with the growth of the community," Wilking said. And as Exeter sees an increase in apartments, senior living, single-family homes and potential workforce housing, the need surges, Comeau said.
The past few years have also seen talk of constructing a new sub-station on Continental Drive in the Epping Road corridor, but that doesn't happen without additional personnel.
The formal public hearing on the town's budget, warrant and bond articles will be held Tuesday, Jan. 18 at 7 p.m. Selectmen will finalize what voters will see at the Feb. 3 deliberative session, including the future of the additional firefighters positions.