Lebanon — Although Lebanon’s fire department is responding to more emergencies, it’s often forced to get by with too few firefighters, according to Fire Chief Chris Christopoulos.
The city is currently facing a firefighter shortage, Christopoulos said in an interview last week, one that’s forcing Lebanon to rely more heavily on off-duty employees and senior staffers to respond to routine calls.
“We’re doing more calls with less people,” he said. “It puts wear and tear on our people. They’re doing more reporting, they’re doing more calls, they’re lifting more patients.”
That’s why is Christopoulos is proposing the city hire two additional firefighters through a federal Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response, or SAFER, grant.
He applied for the grant in February, but it required acknowledgment of the City Council last week to enter a review phase.
The SAFER Grant Program provides funding to fire departments across the country so they can adequately respond to emergencies. Costs are shared during the three-year grant program, with the federal government footing most of the bill during the first two years.
If the city were to receive a grant, it would be expected to pay $229,196 toward the new firefighters’ salaries and benefits over 3 years. Another $367,817 would be provided through the grant over the same time period.
The two positions would help reduce staffing difficulties and allow the city to put more boots on the ground to respond to emergencies, Christopoulos told the City Council on Wednesday. He said Lebanon has the same amount of firefighters on duty as Hanover and Hartford, but responds to double their yearly calls.
“I can’t articulate anymore that we’re really strained with our current limits,” Christopoulos told the council.
Between 2007 and 2016, the fire department has seen its calls for service increase 29 percent citywide. Firefighters also responded to 1,339 overlapping calls in 2016, where they were expected to handle two or more incidents at the same time.
Christopoulos said most of the demand comes from emergency medical calls, particularly from the city’s elderly population.
“We have a higher population at Quail Hollow (Senior Living Community),” he said, adding the fire department saw calls double from there last year.
Other senior communities also contributed to the increase, Christopoulos said, along with accidents on city streets and a sharp uptick in overdoses. The fire department doubled its use of naloxone, a drug that reverses the effects of opiates, in 2016.
While those increased calls put a greater strain on the fire department, Christopoulos said the city hasn’t been forthcoming in hiring more firefighters.
“The last time we added staffing was 2007. We added four firefighters” he said in an interview. “In 2011, we eliminated one of those positions.”
Lebanon is now at the point where the fire department is lagging behind national standards, Christopoulos said.
At any given time, there’s two firefighters at the West Lebanon station and three downtown. But a 2008 report commissioned by the city recommended hiring 4 more firefighters per shift, a total of 16 new employees.
While Lebanon is meeting state regulations for staffing ambulance calls, it’s not meeting national standards for fires, which require a minimum of 4 firefighters on an engine, Christopoulos said.
“We’re assembling a minimum level of people on the fire ground in that first five to nine minutes but we’re not sending that fire engine out of here with sufficient staffing,” he said.
The grant isn’t a long-term solution to solving the department’s problems, Christopoulos told the City Council, but an opportunity to help in the short-term.
Although the Council showed support for the grant, they agreed there should be a larger discussion of staffing emergency services. The police department has also expressed a need for more officers.
“I don’t think we should stop having this discussion,” said Assistant Mayor Sue Prentiss.
“I understand we have an increased call volume. We have to address that somehow, and the obvious way to address that is to increase firefighters,” said Councilor Tim McNamara.
McNamara said he supports increased staffing, but wants to look for new ways to support the spending. He suggested looking into impact fees or possibly trying to collect revenue in new ways.
“My concern is that once we add a full-time employee, we rarely get rid of a full-time employee,” he said.
Christopoulos told the Council that adding firefighters could also help decrease some budget costs. He predicted the additional staff could lower overtime by about $22,000 and reduce fuel and vehicle maintenance costs.
“What I’m trying to do is be creative in finding an alternative funding source” instead of increasing the budget, he said.
SAFER grants are expected to be awarded in June. If Lebanon is offered the funding, the City Council will then have to decide whether it will accept the funds.
Tim Camerato can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3223.