RI town FFs say lack of staff causing excessive mutual aid calls

The town received mutual aid 511 times this year and firefighters say they rely on a neighboring department almost daily


Sean Flynn
Newport Daily News, R.I.

MIDDLETOWN, R.I. — Middletown received 511 mutual aid calls from neighboring fire departments through Nov. 30 this year, while the town provided mutual aid 142 times, meaning the town received 360% more aid than it gave. That's not an anomaly. In 2018, the town required almost 300% more mutual aid calls than it gave.

"There are drastic differences between the amount of mutual aid received by Middletown and what is given by our department annually," said Firefighter John Jordan, president of Middletown Firefighters Local 1933.

The fire union representing Middletown firefighters says a lack of adequate staff is causing excessive reliance on mutual aid. (Photo/Will Richmond, Newport Daily News)
The fire union representing Middletown firefighters says a lack of adequate staff is causing excessive reliance on mutual aid. (Photo/Will Richmond, Newport Daily News)

The firefighters say the lack of adequate staffing in Middletown's fire department is the driver behind the discrepancy in mutual aid calls and the major conflict the firefighters union has with the town in current contract arbitration hearings.

"Middletown is using neighboring communities to supplement the town's lack of firefighter manpower," Jordan said. "We should be able to handle all our call volume, except of unusual circumstances. We should be able to handle 90% of our calls. Instead, we use Newport on an almost daily basis."

Newport has responded this year to 228 emergency calls into Middletown, with the Navy Fire Department responding an additional 180 times and Portsmouth coming in 102 times, according to data provided by Middletown Fire Chief Peter Faerber. Middletown by contrast went into Newport 67 times, to Portsmouth 64 times, and to Navy base properties 5 times.

"The aid needs to be mutual as the title says," Jordan said. "In our case, it is not mutual."

"The Newport Fire Department comes to the nursing home almost as much as Middletown," wrote Dru Boiani, director of nursing at a Middletown nursing home on the Middletown Firefighters Local 1933 Facebook page.

"The amazing staff of MFD does their best, but we have three nursing homes, two assisted livings, multiple hotels, apartment complexes, condos and more," Boiani wrote.

What ignited this public discussion is the failure of Middletown and the firefighters' union to come to an agreement on a labor contract for the current fiscal year. Much of the discussion has been on the union's Facebook page.

"It's not wages or benefits that are holding up the contract," Jordan said. "We are requesting more staff for the safety of the residents we serve and our own safety. We don't want to operate when we are dangerously thin."

Adding manpower to any town department means adding significant costs to the operating budget – costs that have to be carried by the taxpayers, responded Middletown Town Council President Robert Sylvia. He said the types of services being provided have to be studied.

Middletown firefighters received 3,397 calls for service in 2019, with 2,495 of those calls being emergency medical calls, according to the data provided by Chief Faerber.

"Many of those calls is picking up people and bringing them to the hospital," Sylvia said. "I have to look at the numbers more closely, but maybe we should privatize a rescue wagon."

"We have a community that is a formula for disaster," he added. "The population is decreasing and getting older. The town has to consider what an affordable quality of life is for every taxpayer in town. We can't price people out of the community."

Faerber said the department and town administration have been looking at the data to determine what is causing the increases in mutual aid calls, as well as the number of overall calls for service.

"We've made minor adjustments in the way we deploy to lessen the need for mutual aid," Faerber said.

Asked if adding one or two firefighters to each shift would help solve the mutual aid problem, he said that is a question of funding.

"It's basically whether the town can afford it," he said.

"The Aquidneck Island communities have longstanding mutual aid agreements which aid in public safety responses across the island," said Town Administrator Shawn Brown. "The net amount of mutual aid fluctuates based on a multitude of factors. We have been reviewing the data on an ongoing basis. The town will be evaluating the need for any organizational changes in the way we provide fire and rescue services during the upcoming budget cycle which begins in January."

"Middletown has not kept up with the increases in call volume over the past 40 years," firefighter Jordan said. "There are many more accidents, emergency medical calls, hazmat calls, terrorism threats – what we are responsible for has increased tenfold. The town has grown tremendously in terms of new construction. Around Tuckerman Avenue, there used to be all small, single-family homes. Now, many of them have been converted into three-story big wooden-frame homes. We also have multiple retirement and nursing homes that utilize the rescue wagons the most."

Jordan can reel off significant emergencies where Middletown firefighters were not immediately available, so mutual aid was necessary. About three years ago, a Middletown woman with a shunt in her leg for dialysis started bleeding there.

"I was on an engine at a gas emergency," Jordan said. "The Navy responded. She bled to death. I am not saying we would have saved her if we could have responded, but usually the faster we get there, the better the outcome."

There was a car rollover on Third Beach Road in October 2018 in which the wife was ejected from the car and the husband suffered injuries. A Middletown fire engine was first on the scene, but Portsmouth had to send the first responding rescue wagon, Jordan said.

"I was at the hospital with the rescue wagon when the accident happened," he said. "By the time I arrived, Portsmouth was engaged in treating her and then transported her to Newport Hospital. I treated and transported him to the hospital."

Both were later transferred to Rhode Island Hospital in Providence, where the wife was listed in critical condition before she died.

Those and other incidents are ones that Jordan cannot forget.

"I don't want that one again," he says after each story.

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©2019 Newport Daily News, R.I.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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