BRUNSWICK, Maine — Almost eight years to the day after a three-alarm fire destroyed a landmark building on Brunswick’s Maine Street, firefighters for the town say the department is dangerously understaffed and has been for years.
As negotiations about the 2019-2020 town budget begin in earnest, Fire Chief Ken Brillant has proposed increasing his staff by one firefighter per shift — a total of four crew members, which would ensure eight firefighters on duty at all times for the town of approximately 20,000 people — as well as an enforcement inspector to oversee, among other responsibilities, multi-unit inspections.
“We are severely understaffed now and have been for quite some time,” Brillant told the Town Council at an April 1, 2019, public hearing on a proposed new Central Fire Station. “There is a need now.”
But Brillant acknowledged Thursday that his proposed increase of four firefighters is not enough.
“It should be 10 to 12 people per shift, but we’re also aware of where the budget is,” he said.
But that increase would be the first in at least nine years, following at least that many years of mandates by town managers, including current manager John Eldridge, that any budget proposal by any department head not include increases to staff or programs.
Capt. Matt Barnes, a firefighter/AEMT and president of the Brunswick Professional Firefighters IAFF Local 1719, said Friday that any staff increase will be welcome, but he maintains the town needs to hire even more — another 12 to 16 firefighters — to bring the department in line with best practices.
Brillant said he has had private conversations with Eldridge expressing his concerns about the need for more staff, but he understands the manager must balance those needs with the needs of other departments.
Currently, Brunswick employs 32 firefighters, who each carry varying EMT licenses ranging from basic EMT to paramedic level. That should staff each of the four companies with eight firefighters, but due to vacation time, one person is usually out on every shift.
The first employee on a shift to take vacation or sick time is not replaced, according to policy, but the second person out is covered through overtime, Brillant said. This means that every shift is staffed with a minimum of seven firefighters.
Last year, the department was fully staffed with eight firefighters on only 22 of 365 days, Barnes said.
By comparison, the city of South Portland responded to approximately the same number of calls last year — 4,625 — but with a staff of 64 firefighters, twice as many as Brunswick. Scarborough, with a similar population to Brunswick — both between 20,000 and 21,000 — has a full-time department of 31 but with an additional 54 per diem firefighters.
“We need more staffing,” Barnes, told town councilors at an April 1 public hearing on new fire station to replace the existing 100-year-old Central Station. Barnes said union officials have told two previous town managers, Don Gerrish and Gary Brown, as well as Eldridge, that the department was understaffed, but that no proposal to increase staffing was ever included in a municipal budget.
This year, Eldridge has requested a municipal budget of $26 million, which would increase the property tax rate 2.16 percent. County taxes are set to increase 1.6 percent, and on Thursday, Brunswick School Superintendent Paul Perzanoski submitted a proposed school budget increase of 3.6 percent, bringing that proposed budget to $40.4 million.
Speaking to his inclusion of four additional firefighters and an inspector, Eldridge told the council, “The statistics speak for themselves. We’ve had a 66 percent increase in calls in the last 10 years, and no staffing changes since 2006. Most of the increase in the calls relate to EMS, so our proposal … we have four shifts of firefighters — four shifts of eight each. Our proposal would add an additional person per shift. Call volume increase and also [the] nature of call volume has changed … A lot more of the calls wind up going to Portland. When that happens, that leaves the station short, understaffed, we’re calling in people, and that puts both the firefighters and the public at risk when there are just not enough people to respond.”
The dramatic increase in call volume is not surprising considering the changes Brunswick has experienced in the last decade, Barnes said. When Brunswick Naval Air Station closed in 2011, the base fire department — required by federal law to be staffed with 21 firefighters at all times — closed with it.
Although the base fire department is gone, the redevelopment of the former base has added 3,600 square acres, nearly 2 million square feet of building space, an airport and housing that is now mostly filled — all protected by the Brunswick Fire Department.
In addition, Brunswick’s call fire department, a volunteer department within a career fire department, at one time boasted 30 members, but is now down to just three inactive members, Brillant said.
Barnes described a situation Wednesday afternoon when much of Brunswick’s department provided mutual aid to Topsham for a structure fire on Tuesday.
“Just yesterday we were running all day and we get a call for a cardiac arrest on Baribeau Drive,” Barnes said. “We end up with an engine and a rescue — only two and two [personnel]. We get there and people are doing CPR — it’s a full cardiac arrest. And at that time, the tower gets toned out for a structure fire in Topsham. Then the engine is toned out for the fire. That took six firefighters out of town, and we only had seven. Now, in the entire town of Brunswick, there’s only me [in the station]. I put out a Code 21 [callback for off-duty firefighters]. Only one person came in. And then we got a pediatric rescue call.”
Brillant said the department does not track how often “callbacks” go unfilled, but said, “It’s very hit or miss” depending on the time of day.
Barnes called the staffing shortage “ludicrous,” adding, “We’re playing with fire.”
The evening of Nov. 7, 2018, Brunswick fire and rescue went to Maine Street for a report that a patient in a car was in full cardiac arrest. Initially one firefighter/paramedic and one firefighter/advanced EMT arrived, but an engine carrying another of each arrived shortly.
Barnes said he also dispatched the remaining on-duty personnel — three firefighter/paramedics — because research indicates that “the more people you put at it, the better the results will be.”
The patient was treated “aggressively” at the scene, was “viable” when taken to Mid Coast Hospital, and ultimately survived, leaving a voicemail for Brillant four days later thanking him for his crew’s efforts.
But Barnes said that during the hour-long call, “the town of Brunswick was without fire and EMS coverage, and was dependent on our mutual aid partners for coverage.”
In early January, the department responded to a fire on Swett Street and found a three-story apartment building with “heavy fire on arrival.”
“Two people showed up” at that fire, Barnes said. “Two were at Maine Medical Center [in Portland] and three came [shortly afterward] with the tower. So originally we had five people on scene.”
And while additional personnel arrived after mutual aid was called, Barnes said that arrangement can also work to Brunswick’s detriment: Because many area towns have volunteer-only departments, Brunswick is frequently first at the scene, and Brunswick firefighters are frequently first into the building.
Barnes said that as a Brunswick taxpayer, he appreciates efforts at reducing the town’s tax burden, and realizes that adding all the necessary staffing at once is unrealistic. But he added, “We have needed this staffing for a long time and are hoping for a three- to five-year plan to get the staffing to where we need it. I’m very thankful the fire chief is putting in for staffing this year, but one [firefighter] per shift is not going to cut it … when you call 911, you’re going to want someone to be there, and we can’t guarantee who that will be, or when, anymore.”
Town Councilor Kathy Wilson said Friday that she was not aware that department heads had been prohibited from requesting additional staff in recent years, but added that regardless of past practices, it’s clear the fire department is extremely understaffed.
“I don’t think the general public understands it at all,” Wilson said. “They expect them to just show up — the police, the fire department … especially the fire department. And they are also our EMTs. If someone has a heart attack and they’re trying to save them, and someone else’s house catches on fire, we’re in a big pickle. And it happens … But the majority of the population doesn’t get it. What’s going to happen when somebody dies?”
Town Council Chairman John Perreault did not return a phone call seeking comment Sunday.