Grant gives fire personnel a much needed boost

8/25/2017 | Chris Maza

Category: August

Fire personnel and officials gathered to celebrate the grant earlier this month.
Reminder Publications submitted photo

With a $1.2 million grant, the West Springfield Fire Department will be able to conduct a much-needed expansion of its personnel.

On Aug. 4, the city was awarded a SAFER Staffing for Adequate Fire & Emergency Response)  grant provided through FEMA, which will allow for the hiring of eight new firefighters. With four different response groups making up the department, two new recruits would be added to each, bumping their staffing up to 18 firefighters on a shift.

The three-year grant will provide partial funding for the increase in staffing – 75 percent the first two years and 35 percent the third. Mayor William Reichelt said the city set aside funds for its portion in this year’s budget in reserves – because the grant had not yet been awarded when the budget was crafted. In the next two fiscal years, the city will incorporate those costs into its operating budget.

Fire Chief William Flaherty said the increased staffing would allow the department to bolster its emergency response capabilities by adding a second full-time ambulance and potentially a third part-time ambulance while remaining within acceptable staffing levels for fire response.

The grant, Reichelt said, would give the city a “very much discounted opportunity” to review the financial and operational viability of the increased staffing, which he said was necessary in the past.

The National Fire Protection Association recently revised the guidlines for staffing levels and, according to Flaherty, the staff additions would ensure the department is never short-staffed on a shift. He explained, for example, that a minimum of 15 firefighters are needed to fight a house fire, including a rapid intervention team ready to make a rescue if a firefighter is injured. That kind of rescue, he said, requires six firefighters for every one in peril.

Since taking over ambulance service from the Police Department in 1993, the department saw a dramatic jump in service calls from approximately 1,100 to 3,000. In 2016, that number was up to 7,200 with the same staffing levels.

With ambulance service making up the majority of those calls, Reichelt and Flaherty stressed the grant would help provide better service and quicker response times to residents and businesses.

“We have mutual aid help from Westfield and Agawam, but when someone from West Springfield calls and it takes 20 minutes for someone to get there, they’re wondering why,” Reichelt said. “They aren’t necessarily thinking that the department is fielding twice as many calls with the same amount of staffing; they just know they need an ambulance, so this is a better way to serve our residents.”

He added the opening of MGM Springfield, slated for September 2018, would put an even greater strain on public safety personnel. Mitigation money through the city’s Surrounding Community Agreement, as well as revenue from mutual aid response would help offset the cost of the the additional firefighters.

“We provide mutual aid to Agawam, which for our ambulance is revenue and while we know it won’t fully offset the cost, we’ll be able to see if it is worth it to have that third ambulance,”?Reichelt said. “We’ll also have mitigation money from MGM. Part of this, too, is to get ready for the increase in service calls we’re going to get from people staying in hotels and more people traveling through our city.”

Even if the city determines the higher staffing levels do not make sense for the community and the department, having trained personnel on board would help with inevitable attrition with impending retirements.

“We have a bunch of retirements coming up, so if it doesn’t work out, we’re not going to be getting rid of these guys; we’ll already have trained staff on board ready to fill those spot,” Reichelt said. That’s something we always battle with. You don’t want to be in that position where you don’t have enough guys to staff an engine.”

In accordance with Civil Service Commission regulations, to fill the eight positions, the department must interview at least 17 candidates – the number of openings multiplied by two, plus one – and the candidates selected must be approved. Once approved, they would attend the fire academy.

“We’re probably looking about six or seven months out until they are through the academy,” Flaherty said.

Flaherty also credited Deputy Chief Michael Culver for the grant award.

“He’s been doing it for about three years now and I think total he’s earned us something like $2.5 million in grants. Mike has done a great job and he’s got great grant writing ability, which is really a boost for the town,” he said.

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