By Devyn Giannetti
The Amherst Fire Department is facing extreme understaffing with both firefighters and volunteers. According to Tom Valle, Amherst Fire Department firefighter, paramedic and union member, the problem has existed for over 30 years, and little progress has been made to combat the issue.
Local 1764, the union representing AFD, believes the department is in direct conflict with nationally-recognized industry standards. However, there is no regulatory body to ensure the town meets those standards, according to Valle. Therefore, the union works to educate the public on the “extremely dangerous practices employed by the town” in the hopes Amherst residents will push their elected officials to work toward more appropriate levels of public safety through the fire department in the community.
"The union feels the town has been duped; it’s in the town manager’s hands now.”
Valle believes many Amherst residents and University of Massachusetts students are unaware of just how understaffed AFD actually is.
“Frankly, our metrics are a joke,” Valle said. “If you talk to other communities that are our size and other fire departments [about our staffing numbers] that are doing the same number of calls, they actually think we’re kidding.”
There are many days that AFD receives calls with only two or three firefighters able to respond. At any given period of time, the Central and North fire stations have eight people on duty who make up four different forces: the career force, volunteer force, student force and call force. Valle says the Northampton Fire Department is of comparable, yet smaller population size (28,554 in Northampton versus 37,819 in Amherst) but averages 14 to 18 people on duty at any given time, double the staff AFD has on a daily basis.
AFD has a volunteer force that allows members of the community to receive training to help answer calls and cover when the career force is out on calls. But volunteer numbers are also low, according to Valle.
"Call forces are meant to supplement an adequately-staffed force, not fill in for an understaffed one.”
“The trouble is, it’s getting harder and harder for people to volunteer these days, not only here but across the country,” Valle said. “These people work full-time during the day. We’re constantly trying to recruit, but the demands are getting higher with extensive trainings and certifications increasing, making it a lot harder to be a volunteer.”
Thomas Blessing, a senior computer science major, has been volunteering and working part-time with AFD for two years. He believes that because of the understaffing he has ended up working more hours than usual.
“Any time the just two engines in town are both out on calls, part-time, call-force firefighters are called in to staff additional engines,” Blessing said. “We are called in to help the career force almost every week, and on busy days can end up working many hours. Call forces are meant to supplement an adequately-staffed force, not fill in for an understaffed one.”
Valle said at their peak volunteering time they had about 20 volunteers, but they are currently “nowhere near that right now,” and calls for supplementing staff often go unanswered.
Call volumes have also gone up over the last decade, making it even more difficult to meet the national standards for call response time. According to NFPA standards, fire departments providing Advanced Life Support services such as Amherst should have an eight-minute response time at least 90 percent of the time. But with emergency call volumes triple what they were in 1970s, AFD is fighting to keep up.
Because of this, Amherst has a mutual aid agreement with neighboring departments such as Northampton to help if multiple calls come in at once, or if ambulances or fire trucks are out on other calls. Consequently, if surrounding towns are helping each other, resources are being taken away from areas that do have enough staff and resources.
“OUR BIGGEST JOB RIGHT NOW IS TO LET THE TOWN KNOW THAT PUBLIC SAFETY HAS TO BE A PRIORITY.”
According to Local 1764’s website, “When three, four or even five ambulances are doing calls there is often nobody left in town for emergencies. We count on assistance from our neighboring fire departments and ambulance services several times each month to help us keep up with the high volume of emergencies. However, these services are often more than 10 miles away and serious emergencies are forced to lose precious minutes waiting for help to arrive. In addition, pulling resources from our neighboring communities means that those communities are now left without adequate protection of their own.”
Local 1764 has made its displeasure with the Carlson Group public through their Facebook page, and are using social media as a means to educate the public about how bad they feel this understaffing really is. The page constantly keeps its followers updated on local fires and how understaffing is affecting these call response times.
“Social media has given [the union] a chance to communicate directly with the public that this is where we are and this is where we should be with national standards,” Valle said.
While UMass is a large area that AFD covers, it only makes up a small percentage of the calls that actually go to the department. According to the AFD database, the University accounted for 15.08 percent of calls the fire department received in 2016.