WALLINGFORD — The municipal fire department debuted a new response model this past week that changed the average staffing level.
Instead of five firefighter/paramedics on the day shift, there are now three. The two daytime ambulances are now staffed with two emergency medical technicians each, instead of two paramedics.
EMTs are not able to assist with firefighting tasks and can only provide basic life support, not advanced life support.
If advanced life support is needed, a paramedic has to leave the firefighting side to help the emergency medical services side, leaving that engine company short a firefighter.
That situation happened Wednesday, the first day of the new system.
“We did have instances (Wednesday) where fire suppression units—the engine companies—were short because the paramedic had to ride in on the ambulance,” Deputy Fire Marshal Shock Baitch, who is president of Wallingford Professional Firefighters IAFF Local 1326, said Thursday.
“We got hit with a wave that at one point,” he said, “we lost two of our paramedics because they had to ride in to provide the advanced life support.”
Baitch ascribed this to settling into the new system.
“For Day 1, it was a bit crazy, but we were hours into a brand new model,” he said.
Fire Chief Richard Heidgerd said that is actually the way the new system is designed to work.
“What happened (Wednesday) is exactly how it’s supposed to work,” Heidgerd said. “It was not what I would call an issue.”Why the change?
The change in response model came about because about 80 percent of call volume in Wallingford is for EMS, fire officials have said.
Medical response calls were reducing firefighting capacity, Heidgerd said, because firefighter/paramedics had to be taken off the firefighting side.
About 50 percent of medical calls in Wallingford are for basic life support, compared to the national average of 40 percent, Heidgerd said.
“In responding with paramedics, we were over-responding,” he said. “Anywhere else, a commercial ambulance would have EMTs covering those calls.”
Changes in staffing affects available personnel. Wallingford reduced its ranks from 63 to 56 firefighters plus an EMS lieutenant.
The 2020-21 budget funds 16 new EMT positions, but the department has not fully staffed those positions yet.
Currently, there are 14 trained and operational EMTs, and the department has made conditional offers to two people to fill the empty positions.
Day shift had only one ambulance on Wednesday, which is slated to change within three weeks when the EMTs are fully staffed.
“That was somewhat unique and not by design,” Heidgerd said. “We plan on having two staffed ambulances, 24/7.”Different staffing levels
Daytime staff during the week has gone from 16 firefighters to 13.
The old contract that expired Wednesday stated that the minimum manpower requirement was 12, but the department regularly overstaffed to 16 during the weekday day shift. There were 14 staff on duty Saturday and Sunday daytime, and 12 on all night shifts.
Under the old system, there were three firefighters on Ladder Truck 1, three on Engine 1 including one paramedic, three on Engine 2 including one paramedic, two on Rescue 3 including one paramedic, two paramedics on Medic 1, two paramedics on Medic 2 and one in Car 4.
The day shift runs from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Overnight, coverage dropped to one ambulance. During the day shift on weekdays, the department ran Rescue 3, an emergency response vehicle, staffed with a paramedic for assistance during peak call times.
Only two paramedics, one for each ambulance, were contractually required. The two engines and Rescue 3 were licensed at the paramedic level, but if not enough paramedics were assigned on the night shift, the chief wasn’t required to hire a paramedic to keep the engine at paramedic level.
The new contract, effective Wednesday, has a minimum of 13 firefighters on duty at all times, every day, but the actual number is 17.
There’s now two firefighters on Ladder Truck 1, three on Engine 1 including one paramedic, three on Engine 2 including one paramedic, four on Engine 3 including one paramedic, one in Car 4, plus two EMTs in each of the two basic life support ambulances.
“We’re better staffed now than we were prior to July 1,” Heidgerd said.
A new quintuple combination pumper truck is due to be delivered in October and equipped and in service in November. It will replace the old Engine 3 fire truck.Rescue 3
Another change is that Rescue 3 is no longer dispatched on calls and staff has been reassigned to fire trucks.
The vehicle is now dedicated to EMS Lt. Michael Krupinski, who works daytime during the week. He’s available for advanced life support coverage, which keeps the firefighters in service, Heidgerd said.
Most of Wallingford’s calls happen from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. and the eight-hour work day is a big part of that.
“Having that EMS lieutenant available takes away some of that surge capacity problem that we had,” Heidgerd said, adding that running Rescue 3 was a “stopgap” until they could get another engine on the road.
Rescue 3 may be put back on the road if call volume increases, which the department is flat on right now.
“It’s a nice vehicle you can add and take away as needed,” he said.
Both Heidgerd and Baitch said the changes shouldn’t impact fire department volunteers. Some district boundaries have been moved around to accommodate the new quint truck but, notwithstanding “some very small tweaks,” Heidgerd said, volunteers still cover the same areas.
Baitch said that from a town coverage point of view, the department has increased vehicles and services to the town.
“There is the potential that there will be times where we have less firefighters in the town, that is fact,” Baitch said. “It will depend on when the calls come in, how they come in, and unfortunately that’s just how it is. But it’s a significant change in model. People may notice that services have changed.”
Mutual aid agreements are in place with neighboring communities, but there is a legitimate concern that there may be fewer firefighters in the event a fire call comes in, Baitch said.
“We reassure our members that we’ll do everything we can,” he said, “but sometimes the union can only control so much, and we’ll make the best of what we have, what we’re given.”
The public is encouraged to reach out to the Town Council if they have concerns about staffing or other changes, Baitch said.
“We speak about safety, and we speak about minimum manning and what’s needed to fight a fire, but we also understand that the budget has constraints,” he said. “What we want and what we hope to have is sometimes financially impossible.”