| A couple weeks ago the Selectmen invited the chiefs of the Police and Fire Departments to their meeting. One of the topics of discussion with the Fire Department was the use of fire engines to respond to medical calls, and the associated expense that goes along with it. In the course of that meeting Mike Butler said he wanted some more analysis on the issue, and as it so happens I've been working on just such a project, so I'm glad I can contribute a little bit to that discussion.
In the Fire Department's report for 2010-2011 (not yet published) they acknowledge that "historically, the Fire Department has had a single function, the protection of life and property from the threat of fire. During the last 10 - 20 years the Fire Department has become a multi-functional, multi-hazard emergency and non-emergency response agency."
This is absolutely true, and the number of things the Department does today is vastly wider than was done 10, 20, or 30 years ago. In fact, putting out fires is only a relatively minor aspect of what they do today. Of the 6,248 responses the Fire Department made last year, only 188, or 3% of them, were putting out fires. Even when looking at just the emergency responses, when our firefighters left the station it was only to put out a fire 4% of the time.
|In 1980, on the other hand, we truly had a Fire Department. That year they responded to 1,677 fires - 408 in houses, 148 in cars, and 1,121 in trash or rubbish. That's 4.6 fires a day. They also had 81 medical/ rescue calls. Five years earlier, in 1975, there were zero medical calls. If you look at just those two tasks in 1980, 95% of the calls were for fires, and only 5% were medical. Fast forward to today. The number of fires has decreased so much that they don't even break it down by type any more.
There's been a complete switch over the last 30 years; it's now 6% for fires, and 94% for medical calls. You can really see the dramatic shift in the chart below. (Note that there were no statistics in the 1995 town report; I averaged 1990 and 2000 to get the data points.)
As you can see above, there were nearly twice as many medical calls made last year as there were fires in 1980. After the number of fires decreased dramatically in the 1980s, the department took on an increased responsibility for making medical calls in the 1990s.
Just since the turn of this millennium, the number of fires has decreased by 42%. The number of medical calls, however, has increased by almost exactly the same amount, 40%. It's tough to tell from this chart because the medical calls line dwarfs the fires, but in 2006 we had as few as 69 fires. Remember, this isn't 69 house fires we are talking about here. This includes everything from the 4 alarm blaze in Riverdale the other day to the parking lot mulch that ignited when someone carelessly discarded a cigarette.
This is not to take away anything from any of the very dedicated and brave men who serve in our Fire Department. I have only the highest respect and appreciation for what they do. As you can see from the photo I took on Booth Rd below, I've literally watched them run into burning buildings before.
However, we need to recognize that what we now ask our Fire Department to do is not to put out fires. Instead, their primary mission is to respond to medical calls. That is a role much better suited to an EMT in an ambulance than a firefighter in an engine.
With that in mind, we really need to consider how we appropriate our resources. At the Selectmen's meeting Chief Spillane warned that if we were to move a couple of our fire fighters to an ambulance that would mean taking one engine out of service. That's certainly not something we should do lightly. On the other hand, we need to ask ourselves where there is a greater need: for three engines and a ladder truck, or for more EMTS. Given that putting out fires makes up only 3% of what the Fire Department does, I think a very strong case can be made for the latter.
As bookworm pointed out in October, there are several vacant positions in the Fire Department. However, the number of firefighters has remained pretty steady over the past three decades. In fact, we have 61 firefighters today, which is 4 more than we did in 1980 when their primary responsibility was to actually to put out fires. Especially with an aging population, we should think about reducing the number of firefighters and engine companies we have and moving that manpower and money into ambulances.
Consider what it costs just in terms of wear and tear to send an engine to respond to medical emergencies - and plenty of non-emergencies as well. In 2008 we replaced a 15 year old fire engine with a new truck at a cost of $435,000. I don't know how much longer this new one will last if we stop sending it on medical calls but, for the sake of argument, say we can get an extra 5 or 10 years out of it. That's over $1 million in savings right there, to say nothing about what we will save in gas on a 6 mile per gallon vehicle.
I don't want to see anyone lose their job, but moving resources from firefighters to EMTs will also realize a great savings. The average EMT in our area makes $33,508 a year. The average employee of our Fire Department, including officers, made more than double that at $72,761 last year. With over $4 million spent each year just on salaries for firefighers, we could save a bundle replacing some of them with EMTs.
There are plenty of other factors I am not taking into consideration, but this post is long enough already. What I am hoping is that we can at least begin to discuss how much can be gained, as well as what would be lost, by moving some of our resources away from fire trucks and into emergency medical vehicles instead.