2017-11-30 / News

BFD to ask for more staff

By Grant McPherson
Staff Writer

BIDDEFORD – While the future of the Hills Beach Fire Station remains uncertain, the Fire Department will ask for more staff in the next budget cycle regardless, as the city’s population and call volume continue to increase.

Fire Chief Scott Gagne will submit a request for two more staff members to the council’s budget discussion next year, expected to begin in February or March. Right now the department has 10 people assigned to each shift, but due to vacations, sick time and training, eight people are on duty about 82 percent of the time. The last time the department increased staff was in 2005, and the call volume in the city has since doubled.

“We can efficiently handle 2 medical calls with the staffing we have,” Gagne said. “That’s the reality of it. We are an emergency room on wheels now. The amount of skills our people can do is amazing. It takes a lot of staffing. But if one of those calls is in the coastal area it makes it much more challenging to have a positive outcome.”

New fire department staff members would cost about $96,000 each. Addressing the lack of staffing is just the first step for Gagne. Eventually he’d like to add another ambulance and a second fire station near the coast. Biddeford Pool has a volunteer fire station and most members have day jobs. Three of the five on call fire fighters live outside of the Pool area and their response time to fires can be significantly longer than fire department staff.

“We appreciate their work when we need them to do the best they can,” Gagne said. “They are valued members of this department but their availability is limited. Most of the time, we’re on scene before they are. They do a good job but they are limited with what they can do. We have done as much as we can to try to be as efficient as we can to offer the best service before asking for staffing.”

Response time is a priority for department members, and Gagne said he wants to be on the scene of a call within four minutes from the time dispatch notifies them. For a patient experiencing cardiac arrest, permanent brain damage typically occurs between six and eight minutes. A building fire also becomes much more dangerous around the same time, as that is when a flashover is most like to occur. A flashover is when everything in a room or building reaches ignition point and lights on fire at once.

“These are my fears,” said Gagne, who has been fire chief since 2015. “Your chance of survival decreases rapidly after the 10-minute mark.”

The fire department responds to about 400 calls in the coastal area every year, and 100 calls to the University of New England. Gagne said the university could serve as a second location for a new fire department to help address coastal calls as well as respond to calls in town. Gagne suggested university students could work alongside department staff.

Gagne said the University of New England has expressed support for this idea but that costs are the main obstacle.

“I hope that someday the city and the University of New England will sit down more seriously and look at this,” he said. “It comes down to cost and council wishes. They have tough jobs. There’s only so much money. My job is to let them know we are having a hard time meeting service levels. This is a problem progressing over the years, becoming more and more challenging. This is a service community and it’s definitely impacting us. At this point I’m sure the council will look at things and make a decision they feel is best when the time comes.”

Council President John McCurry said he would not vote to increase staff at this time because of how it would affect the budget.

“We underfunded capital improvement plans for 20 years,” McCurry said. “That’s why it’s been such a big push to get capital improvements done. We have a problem with the clock on city hall. The community center has issues, as do most of the buildings we own. We haven’t been good stewards of maintaining our buildings and that’s why we’re in the shape we’re in.” McCurry said he’s not opposed to a second location at the University of New England. He said that while fire fighters in the city have a difficult and dangerous job, he believes they are handling the situation.

“I think the fire department does a great job,” McCurry said. “Everybody in the city does a great job, but how much can we afford.”

According to Gagne, the city is losing revenue because of staffing shortages. Anytime Saco or another town’s rescue service picks up a patient in Biddeford, the other municipality bills the patient. That occurred about 160 times in the last year and Gagne estimated the city lost about $1.3 million in emergency medical service revenue. Gagne said Biddeford relied on outside departments 30 times in October.

“We have had employees come here and leave because the sheer call volume was too much work,” Gagne said. “On the other end I believe the busy service gives us a high caliber of emergency medical service providers. I think that benefit can be very taxing on employees. It’s hard to do simple tasks like fire inspections that other departments can do. For a business sense person it’s hard to understand. The fire service is so unique. I can’t tell you with one or two less guys what productivity will change.”

In 2010 the fire department partnered with Southern Maine Health Care to help with emergency transportations. That year the department was expected to average 10 to 12 transfers per month and bring in $120,000 a year. This year the department averaged 32 transfers per month for a total of $336,000. That money is put in the city’s general fund.

“Our guys do a spectacular job every day,” Gagne said. “I think this city is very safe. It’s my job to at least let you know the challenges we face.” Contact Staff Writer Grant McPherson at news@inthecourier.com

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