Lebanon Fire Department seeks grant for 8 new positions

By PATRICK ADRIAN

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 11-03-2023 10:01 PM

LEBANON — Concerned that city’s two fire stations are understaffed, city councilors have authorized Fire Chief James Wheatley to apply for federal grants to hire up to eight new firefighters.

Wheatley initially asked to apply for enough funds to support four positions, but a majority of councilors, concerned about growing call volumes, encouraged him to double it.

According to Wheatley, a $1.25 million grant would fund the salary and benefits for eight firefighters for three years. During that time the fire department would only be responsible for the cost of the firefighter’s equipment and training, about $300,000.

After three years, the city would absorb the full cost of the positions.

“I get money is tight and that we’ll have some real hard choices,” Councilor Douglas Whittlesey said. “... I look at our call volumes per person and the overall toll that we’re pushing onto our fire department and I feel we have to do something to right the ship, even if it’s just a little bit.”

The City Council voted, 7-2, to allow Wheatley to apply for the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency, or SAFER, grant. The program funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help fire departments hire or retain certified firefighters.

In a presentation prior to the vote on Oct. 18, Wheatley explained that the department’s staffing level — 25 firefighters split between downtown and West Lebanon — is insufficient to meet growing demand.

Since 2007, the department’s call volume has risen by nearly 50%, from nearly 2,700 calls in 2007 to more than 4,000 last year.

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Despite the increase, the city has only added one firefighter during that period, according to Wheatley.

A 2008 study of the department’s operation and efficiency by the Massachusetts  Municipal Association recommended that Lebanon strive for a minimum of 10 on-duty firefighters per shift to ensure staffing stays on pace with the city’s growth.

Currently, the department staffs between five to six firefighters per shift between its two stations, according to Wheatley.

To meet the benchmark of 10 personnel per shift, Wheatley said the department would need to add 15 more firefighters.

Further complicating the situation, Wheatley said, is that 75% of the department calls are for medical emergencies, which often occur simultaneously.

So far this year, 37% of the 3,100 calls to the department were “overlapping,” meaning that one or more emergency calls would come in while some personnel were still tending to another call, according to Wheatley. In 2021 and 2022, between 20-25% of the calls were overlapping.

“This happens on a daily basis,” Wheatley told the council. “And it quickly depletes our resources. It is not uncommon to have only one or no members in the station.”

Mutual aid agreements with other area fire departments typically include providing staff support to cover vacant fire station. But Wheatley explained in a phone interview that inter-departmental coverage is typically only used during large-scale emergencies such as structure fires. Mutual aid requests, which are always increasing, can also be taxing on fire departments, he said.

Wheatley also noted that all of the medical calls to the Lebanon fire department are city residents, as opposed to residents of neighboring towns seeking transport to DHMC or Alice Peck Day Memorial Hospital.

The majority of councilors felt that only adding four firefighters would be insufficient to address the department’s challenges.

“Here we have real, hard data staring us in the face that says if we are to plan for the future, never mind catch up, we can’t just wish that it happens to get better,” said Councilor George Sykes.

Wheatley also told the councilors that the department would be more likely to get funding for eight positions if applying for them in one request, rather than seeking back-to-back SAFER grants.

But the council’s hiring target also raised concerns from city officials, including City Manager Shaun Mulholland.

“I was as surprised as everyone else by that decision,” Mulholland said in a phone interview.

Mulholland said he is particularly concerned about the projected city tax burden in three years, when a number of debt repayments will hit the taxpayers, a $22 million bond to rebuild the downtown Lebanon fire station and a bond for the ongoing modernization of Lebanon’s school buildings.

A five-year outlook of the city’s operating costs, drafted by Mulholland for an upcoming budget presentation, projects that the municipal tax rate may increase by 12% in 2027 due to multiple drivers — the bond repayments, a growing list of needed staffing and infrastructure projects, and the depletion of the city fund balance that has historically used past end-of-year surpluses to offset tax impacts of the annual budgets.

Two councilors, Mayor Tim McNamara and Councilor Erling Heistad, voted against the council motion.

McNamara said that he was comfortable supporting the funding request of four hires, not eight.

“I’m afraid that as we go forward, not just this year but the next several years, we’re going to have to shrink (some city expenses) — and that’s not going to be a pleasant exercise — in order to fund the essential services and to be able to continue making strategic investments while trying to mitigate the increase in the tax rate,” McNamara said.

Wheatley said the department will submit the grant application between November and February, and the grants are expected to be awarded between June and September 2024.

Patrick Adrian may be reached at padrian@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.