With calls for service up, N.S. fire chief makes case for staffing increase

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NORTH SMITHFIELD – Calls for emergency medical service to North Smithfield Fire & Rescue have been trending steadily upward over the past six years according to chief David Chartier, with the sharpest increase taking place recently – between 2020 and 2021.

The department responded to 4,173 calls last year, including 2,235 EMS calls and 660 calls for fires.

Staffing, however, has stayed the same, leading to a greater reliance on help from neighboring communities and with it, a slower response times and a greater cost for services.

“With the increase for demand of emergency medical service in town, we are on the threshold of serious staffing issues,” Chartier told members of the Town Council at a meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 18. “We need to start thinking about developing and getting a plan off the ground. Everything keeps trending up.”

The chief said that while fire calls have remained relatively steady, medical calls were up 400 between 2020 and 2021, leading to North Smithfield to rely on mutual aid from neighboring departments 320 times, an increase of 67 from the previous year. Those calls resulted in a payout of $93,100 in third party billing.

“We only have five people on duty total – three at Providence Pike and two at Saint Paul Street,” Chartier said. “One cardiac arrest puts us out of business.”

NSFR did respond to calls for mutual aid in other communities, leading to recovery of $43,400 from 2021, for a net loss of $49,700.

“I know there’s been some questions in the past about how often we bring mutual aid in, whereas when we’re in another community providing mutual aid,” he said.

But money lost, Chartier said, isn’t the only concern.

“When we’re not available and we have to call another community, there is an increase in response time,” said the chief, noting that when town personnel is available to respond, it takes an average of five minutes to arrive at the scene. “People have to wait for wherever that rescue is coming from.”

By comparison, Woonsocket takes an average of just over eight minutes to arrive at a call in North Smithfield, while Blackstone takes six. A call for mutual aide to Lincoln takes an average of eight minutes and Burrillville takes nine, while Smithfield averages 13 minutes to arrive.

“The increased response time and the increased amount of mutual aid, from our perspective, is unacceptable,” Chartier said. “It’s very difficult to look at these numbers and be comfortable with that.”

The chief noted that all communities rely on mutual aid, but that North Smithfield is reaching a tipping point where staff at other departments may feel that, “You’re counting on us to fill your void.”

“Providence has seven rescues on duty and they call mutual aide every day,” Chartier said. “Our rescues have been down there four or five times in the past month.”

Still, he said, it could create a problem if numbers continue to grow. The chief for the past three years notes that he’s compiled data going back to 2015, and the six year study shows calls continuing to trend upward.

“From 2015 to 2021 we’re showing still a steady increase for demand in emergency services throughout the town,” he said. “2021 was our sharpest increase to date.”

So far this year, from January 1 through Tuesday, Jan. 18, Chartier said NSFR responded to 118 EMS calls, bringing in mutual aid 16 times.

Councilors this week asked for details on the calls, including a breakout of Dowling Village. Chartier said that in 2021, his department responded to 106 EMS calls and 42 fire calls at the Eddie Dowling Highway complex, for a total of 148 responses. He said 92 of those calls were at Walmart.

Councilor Stephen Corriveau noted that unlike other places in North Smithfield, property values are coming down at the massive commercial and residential complex, but calls for service are not.

“What’s happening is we have a town resident who’s paying for this service only to now get it from outside of town,” Correveau said.

Chartier said that calls have also increased rapidly on Route 146, with 68 EMS visits to the highway in 2021, up from just 15 back in 2014.

“We spend a considerable amount of time out on the highway,” he said.

The chief said the ideally, he’d like to add four more members to the North Smithfield Fire & Rescue staff.

“That would allow me to put two crews on duty 7 days a week 24 hours a day,” Chartier said. “We’d have a couple more hands on duty if we had a fire call.”

Right now, he said, “We just don’t have the people to go.”

“We’re going to have to do something, because the numbers are going to go up,” said Councilor Claire O’Hara in reaction to the presentation. “They never go down.”

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