Mass. fire chief alarmed by lack of 'help wanted' interest

When the Orleans Fire Department recently sent out the call for a new paramedic the response was anything but rapid


Rich Eldred
Cape Cod Times, Hyannis, Mass.

ORLEANS — When people call 911 they expect a rapid response, but when the Orleans Fire Department recently sent out the call for a new paramedic the response was anything but rapid.

It had to re-advertise the position and now has interviews set up, but that was a first, and it alarmed Chief Anthony Pike.

Chief Anthony Pike was alarmed when he had to re-advertise for a paramedic position, a first for the department. (Photo/Orleans Fire Rescue)
Chief Anthony Pike was alarmed when he had to re-advertise for a paramedic position, a first for the department. (Photo/Orleans Fire Rescue)

"Whether that's an indication of the housing market or the state of the economy I don't know, but never in Orleans have we not had our pick of applicants," Pike said. "We're nowhere near where we normally are."

At the last selectman's meeting, he brought up the issue as well.

"Some qualified candidates are lured away," Pike told the board. "That's incredibly frightening when we have so much going on. But not many of us are able to live in town anymore."

"We have a seven mile, as the crow flies, residency requirement, and that's getting incredibly difficult for new hires," he told The Cape Codder later, "as well as buying into housing in the $400,000 to $500,000 range. That's unobtainable."

When an ambulance goes out in the winter, Pike often has to call off-duty firemen back to the station to maintain staffing, which is why they need to live close by.

"People don't realize that when the place is empty the chief, deputy chief and fire Inspector all help out," Pike noted.

The department is busy. In the last quarter, it had 308 fire calls (smoke alarms, carbon dioxide alarms, spills, car crashes, etc., included) and 41 mutual aid events. During 2018 it had 1,464 fire calls in all, had to respond to mutual aid (assisting other towns) 237 times, and made 255 lift assists.

Emergency Management Service calls were 8 percent on the year, transports up 13 percent for a total of 3,003 calls (8.2 calls per day). During the year the department made over 1,000 transports to Cape Cod Hospital out of almost 2,000 total EMS calls.

Pike noted Orleans has the oldest population in the state, an honor it occasionally swaps with neighboring towns. That means there are lots of medical calls year round.

"It's 12 months a year now," he said. "What puts a strain on the system is back to back calls and that happens one out of four times the ambulance leaves the property. A lot of times a second ambulance is required before we can get help back in the station. And the turnaround time (going to Cape Cod Hospital) is two hours. So eight calls is 16 hours out of 24."

The department has 20 full-time staff along with the two chiefs and inspector.

"In the winter we often go down to a staff of three to make our budget," Pike explained. "When I started in 1988 we had three-person shifts and today we have three people in the firehouse. The only thing that has changed is our call volunteers, who are an incredibly dedicated group who come in off-duty day after day."

Pike also is concerned that both the police and fire departments have a lot of people near retirement age; he could lose 20 percent of his staff in three years.

On the Outer Cape new paramedic/firefighters make $45,000 to $55,000 to start, not including benefits which can total close to $20,000. But the benefits don't help buy housing.

In 2013 a consultant suggested Orleans add two paramedics and an ENS coordinator position. The two paramedics have been added and the coordinator position will be up for a vote at the May Town Meeting.

The department also provides certified EMTs at Nauset Beach, who responded to 113 first aid calls.

"We have a lack of coverage in September and October, which is the busiest month for sharks," Pike said. "All the EMTs are good but they're from college this summer and that's worrying for Nate Sears (beach manager) and me."

They've been there the last seven years but as seasonal department employees, they are back at school while the sharks are still cruising the beach.

As of Jan. 17, they've been running Stop the Bleed classes for first aid training, with 25 people per class.

"We're pretty much sold out," Pike said. "We have seven more sessions scheduled and it's really taken off. We're scheduled all the way through June."

Anyone interested can call sign up at orleanscitizensforum.org .

Pike said the town needs to be pay competitive with other municipalities, especially when unemployment is low.

"We need to be cognizant that our neighbor [towns] might offer more than we do," he said. "I just try to be optimistic and hope hiring is improved in the future. Right now we're just hanging on for dear life."

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©2019 Cape Cod Times, Hyannis, Mass.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service
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