WILMINGTON — Wilmington Fire Chief Joseph McMahon and Deputy Fire Chief Bill Cavanaugh presented information regarding staffing and budgetary issues to the Board of Selectmen at a Sept. 24 meeting.
According to McMahon, the department staffs four nine-man shifts, with one officer and eight firefighters each. There are two engines, one tower, and two ambulances. The first ambulance run requires an ambulance, engine, and four firefighters. A second run will respond with an officer and two firefighters on an engine. Following that second run, the station is empty.
“This is a daily occurrence,” said McMahon.
If nobody can break away from an ambulance run when a third call comes in, the town must rely upon mutual aid from surrounding communities.
“Over the years, since I’ve been there, it’s a daily occurrence, maybe twice, or three times a day, where the station is empty, and nobody is available on the road to respond because they’re tied up,” added McMahon.
In addition, beginning this year, fire departments are legally obligated to follow the OSHA two in, two out policy. This states that, at a fire, if two firefighters go into a building, two must be waiting outside in full gear ready to relieve them. This policy does not include the pump operator, meaning that a department must have at least five firefighters respond to any call.
“This will not be a recommendation, this is fineable,” said McMahon.
McMahon explained that the majority of the work that firefighters today perform is in the realm of emergency medical services. This often requires heavy lifting in tight spaces up and down multiple flights of stairs. He said that this summer has been particularly challenging for the department.
“I’ve been here since 1982, and I’ve never seen a summer like we had this year. Every injury we have right now, and as of 8/14 we had six people out on injury, four may be long term, and I think four may require surgery. All were directly related to the ambulance,” said McMahon.
He added that many had worked very long weeks in order to make sure shifts were covered.
“I can’t say enough about the guys who stepped up and covered these shifts all summer long,” said McMahon.
In order to ensure OSHA compliance and safety, the department is looking to hire a total of eight new firefighters. The current lieutenants, who are second in command on each shift, would take the exam to move up into a captain role.
The department aims to be compliant by September of 2019. Delays are possible at the civil service level, as it often takes some time to get new hires placed into the fire academy. All new hires must go through the fire academy before they can contribute to manpower totals in the department.
Town Manager Jeffrey Hull said that sorting out this situation will be a priority for him in his budget planning.
“The biggest challenge, quite frankly, is going to be doing it in a way that is not going to shock the budget,” Hull said. “When you’re talking about eight firefighters, eight personnel of any sort, that is a large cost, and between now and when the time the budget is finalized, that’s going to be one of my priorities, to figure out how we can do this in a managed way.”