Friday, February 4, 2005
Carlisle Fire Chief responds to Globe article
Some Carlisle homeowners were dismayed Sunday morning to read an article in the Boston Globe Northwest ("Not Up to Speed") that ranked Carlisle dead last among northwest Boston communities in percentage of on-time responses to fires involving buildings between 1986 and 2002. On-time response was defined as "within six minutes" and the analysis was based on data each town reported to the state fire marshal. Carlisle firefighters arrived within the six-minute window only 23.8% of the time.
But should we accept what we have? Or is it time to consider hiring paid firefighters?
Getting to station delays response
As Flannery noted in the Globe article, the added delay of getting firefighters from home to the station adds three or more minutes to response times. He points to one stormy December night when response to a porch fire was fourteen minutes because firefighters first had to dig out their cars.
Carlisle's on-call department has 27 volunteer firefighters who are paid for training, given a small per-year stipend and paid by the hour if called (but not for being "on-call"). Paid part-time positions include the chief, deputy chief, captain, two lieutenants, and an EMT coordinator. The communications department, which receives all emergency calls, includes a department manager, two full-time and two part-time dispatchers. The fire department handles medical emergencies as well as fires.
Whenever a volunteer is available, he informs the dispatcher and is placed on-call. At least four firefighters are available at all times. In a fire emergency, those on-call are paged with audible voice messages telling them where the fire is. They then report to the station to suit up and form into teams before heading off. Police are dispatched as soon as a call is received and usually arrive before fire trucks or ambulances.
The Globe's six-minute benchmark for response is based on National Fire Protection Association standards for professional fire departments, and, the article notes, is not intended to be applied to volunteer departments. Carlisle's fire response typically ranges between eight and ten minutes, according to Flannery. Carlisle's is the only all-volunteer department within Route 495, so response time doesn't measure up to other nearby communities.
High cost to gain two or three minutes
"We could meet that (six minute standard) only with full-time staffing," says Flannery. He says a paid fire department would likely cost one million dollars or more per year. Staffing must be higher than in comparably-sized communities with municipal water because of the manpower required to hook up to cisterns.
Carlisle has one of the least expensive fire departments in the commonwealth. According to the Globe website (www.boston.com/fires), Carlisle's fire budget in 2003 of $144,970 ranked 300th of 327 communities as a percentage of the town budget (0.8%). Contrast that with Bedford, a town of similar land area (13.9 square miles versus 15.5 for Carlisle) with two-and-a-half times the population and number of housing units. Bedford's fire department was on time more than 95% of the time — but at twelve times the cost ($1,876,207 or 3.8% of the budget) to employ a full-time staff. (Ed note: $144,970 was the fire department 2003 operating budget only and does not include capital expenditures of $38,145 or $36,626 for the ambulance department).
Is the Globe comparison fair?
Flannery points out the Globe article emphasizes response time without considering other factors contributing to fire safety. For example, it fails to note how many fire fighters are on the first truck. Carlisle, drawing on its army of volunteers, arrives with a minimum of four, two of which must be EMTs, while professional departments are sometimes short. "The staffing level of the first truck is important," says Flannery, because one or two firefighters cannot effectively handle equipment and perform search and rescue. In fact, a follow-on Globe article ("Risks Mount for Suburban Firefighters," 1/31/05) notes that one of the leading contributors to firefighter injury and fatality is an inadequate response team, as first-arrivers may feel compelled to perform dangerous operations without adequate back-up.
Experience, training and depth
While other high-income communities have difficulty retaining volunteer firefighters, Carlisle is blessed to field a substantial force that is committed, experienced and well-trained. Flannery notes that one-third have ten years experience, and another one-third more than five. He considers his firefighters "equally or better-trained" than professional graduates of the Massachusetts Firefighters Academy and calls them "professional part-time firefighters." Mutual aid (drawing on other communities) is rarely called because volunteers make themselves available, often at a cost in personal and family time.
Having twenty-seven volunteers to call on gives Carlisle a depth many professional departments lack. According to Flannery, "Within fifteen minutes we can have fifteen firefighters on the scene." Any time additional numbers are needed, an "all-call" goes out, and every volunteer who can drops what he is doing and responds.
The large pool of volunteers means "we handle multiple calls much better than other communities," says Flannery. "We very, very, very rarely call mutual aid." This is particularly important in a town without municipal water, as most neighboring fire departments are not familiar with drafting from cisterns.
Flannery contrasts Carlisle's situation to that of Concord. None of that town's professional firefighters can afford to live in Concord, and therefore "that second level is not available." Instead, the town relies on mutual aid. The Globe details several stories of long response times in Concord, where a staff of four per station finds multiple concurrent calls difficult to handle.
Of course the best way to reduce fire risk is through safety and prevention. Carlisle's fire department has invested in the "Safe House" program which provides community training in fire prevention, detection, and notification. Flannery notes that, looking at fires in town within the past few years which have resulted in loss, department response time was much less of a factor than delays in reporting in the first place.
Should Carlisle consider a professional force?
With the cost of a professional force so high, it would appear that one possible solution would be to combine volunteer and paid firefighters. But Flannery believes, "It's hard to have a mixed department." He says that once a department becomes professional "you lose the quality of volunteer and call firefighters." One of the problems is that "professionals don't want [volunteers] around" and the firefighters' union discourages professionals from serving on-call departments. According to another fire chief who asked not to be named, union pressure caused the state Fire Academy to bar volunteers from attending their recruit four-week program. Do the call firefighters feel less valued? "That's part of it," says Flannery. "I've seen it happen. The call people dwindle out" once a department starts hiring professionals.
Should we go pro?
So should the town take $1 million dollars out of its back pocket and invest in a professional department? There are a number of factors to consider. Will we lose the "esprit de corps" that lets us field a large and well-trained force of local people? Is improving response time the best place to spend money, given that fire prevention is much more cost effective? Is a high investment in response time a priority in a town in which housing density is low, most housing is new, and the older houses tend to be smaller, one-story buildings? Where smoking, the leading cause of house fires in the U.S., is rare?
What about the effect on insurance? Currently Carlisle ranks "9" (second worst) on the ISO fire protection rating for determining insurance risk (Flannery notes the town has improved equipment and water supply since last evaluated). As a result, each Carlisle homeowner pays a premium for fire insurance. One insurance broker estimated the existence of a volunteer fire department results in a 20% premium increase. Would that money be better directed to investing in the fire department?
Input is needed
Until the Globe article appeared, a professional department had never been seriously considered in Carlisle. Flannery says when he was interviewed for the position of fire chief, "It was clearly said to me that the town did not want a full-time fire department. They wanted a commitment to continue the all-call service." He says the community has always supported the volunteer department, and response time has never been a source of complaint. Finance Director Larry Barton agrees the town has never looked into a paid department. "The cost would be astronomical compared to the volunteer department. Everyone's just grateful for the volunteers we have."
But maybe it's time to open the discussion. Says Flannery, "This is an important issue for the Board of Selectmen to take input from the community." He adds, "I just hope people look at the data [on response] as resulting from a choice of the community, not as a reflection on the fire department. This does not reflect on our manpower, training, or quality of service."
Summarizes Flannery, "The day is coming [when a professional department will be needed], but this is working. Our fire needs are being met if the community accepts that response times will be eight or ten minutes, not six."
© 2005 The