Fire chief says more staff needed as calls rise in Hatfield

  • A Hatfield firefighter tosses debris from a burning structure. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 12/12/2021 1:49:11 PM
Modified: 12/12/2021 1:48:34 PM

HATFIELD — An increasing volume of medical and fire calls, coupled with a growing number of mutual aid ambulance responses in Hatfield, is prompting the town’s fire chief to suggest the possibility of adding personnel.

“The calls are going up and we just don’t have the staffing,” Robert J. Flaherty Jr. told the Select Board last week.

The department currently has 21 firefighters with three paramedics and nine EMT Basics. Under a preliminary budget concept, Flaherty said $160,000 would be needed to bring on more firefighters during the evenings and weekends.

The plan would allow for the covering of nine shifts by a paramedic and an EMT Basic, an expense that could be partially offset by an estimated $45,000 in revenue that is lost when calls are given up to mutual aid partners, including Northampton Fire Department ambulances.

“It’s kind of time that the Select Board and the Finance Committee take a big look at this as we move into the budget season in the early part of 2022,” Flaherty said. “We have to grow, we have a lot more going on in town, and we just don’t have the staffing, ultimately.”

The department serves a community with about 3,300 residents, as well 7,000 to 8,000 vehicles traveling on Routes 5 and 10 daily and employees and customers at Hatfield businesses.

Flaherty estimates that fire calls are up about 25% over the last two years and EMS calls are up about 10%. More than one-third of the medical calls, which are getting more severe, can’t be handled due to the lack of availability of call members, putting a burden on the Northampton Fire Department and the regional response system, he said. In October, a Highland Ambulance in Goshen made a response to Hatfield.

“No one else was available,” Flaherty said, adding that he doesn’t want to see something drastic happen to a resident because the Hatfield ambulance isn’t being staffed.

A less expensive alternative would be prioritizing staffing for 16 hours on Saturdays and Sundays at a cost of around $20,000.

The department is also seeing fewer volunteers than a few years ago and those who remain are busier, meaning that sometimes only one or two firefighters can board a fire truck. Flaherty said the department is woefully understaffed based on a national standard, put out by the National Fire Protection Association, that 16 responders should be on a fire scene within 10 minutes of the call. Numerous times Hatfield is only getting one or two people on fire calls.

Since July 26 when Flaherty brought on a full-time firefighter/EMT, working from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily, more is getting done at the station and weekday calls are being covered. “It’s certainly been beneficial for the first few months,” Flaherty said.

He has also deployed strategies, such as reimplementing an overnight firefighter who is on call because of concerns expressed by Northampton officials following an August meeting. In January, he made a decision for firefighters to cross staff the ambulance. That has eliminated the need for what otherwise would have been 42 mutual aid calls.

Flaherty, who is finishing his second year of leading the department, said the department is getting busier despite an ongoing appeal to recruit. “We’re kind of hurting for staffing, and I’m not (seeing) a lot of people showing interest,” Flaherty said.

Anyone interested in serving would be an on-call member that responds when available and must live within 10 minutes of Hatfield center. Though no shifts are available to fill, there is a possibility of sending individuals to EMT class at the town’s expense.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.

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