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Preston volunteer emergency responses drop, prompting call for fourth paid firefighter

Preston — The volunteer emergency response system that has served the town for so many decades is showing signs of strain, and the town's paid fire chief is seeking a fourth paid position to cover overnight hours when dozens of calls are going unanswered by volunteers.

Fire Chief Thomas Casey, who marked his 10th anniversary in February as the town's first paid fire chief, oversees a department that already has morphed into a combination of volunteers and three paid firefighters, Casey included. He presented a report to town officials recently outlining increasing numbers of missed calls and declining numbers of certified volunteer emergency personnel available to respond to calls.

The town no longer has distinct fire districts, so when calls are dispatched anywhere in town, members from both the Preston City and the Poquetanuck volunteer departments respond. But for 172 of the estimated 700 calls in 2016, no volunteers from Poquetanuck responded, and on 186 calls, no volunteers from Preston City responded.

On 119 calls, volunteers did respond but Casey was the only certified responder. And 19 times, all overnight, Casey was the only Preston responder, along with mutual aid from surrounding towns or professional ambulance companies. Casey responded to 435 calls in 2016 and estimates he works 50 to 60 hours a week.

At times, volunteers go to the scene in personal vehicles without emergency apparatus. On 193 calls, no apparatus from Poquetanuck arrived at a scene, and 305 times there was no apparatus from Preston City. At times a volunteer from one department will bring a vehicle from the other department to a scene, Casey said. But 43 times in 2016, Casey's equipped response vehicle was the only town unit at a scene.

One volunteer can drive a firetruck or ambulance to a scene, but an ambulance transport requires two personnel, and at least one must be an EMT trained to treat the patient. An emergency medical responder with less training, or EMR, can assist and drive the ambulance, Casey said.

“We're not unique,” Casey said this past week. “There are a lot more burdens placed on people's time now, training requirements have increased and we respond to a hundred times more calls than they did 40 years ago.”

In December, officials in the North Stonington ambulance company reported similar conditions to the Board of Selectmen. From May through November of 2016, of the 338 medical calls dispatched, 88, or 26 percent, had to resort to mutual aid from surrounding towns for a response. In October alone, 47 percent of calls were missed by North Stonington. The ambulance company responded by hiring five per-diem staff members.

Preston now has only three active volunteer EMTs and only five active volunteer EMRs. The town has only five active volunteer firefighters who meet the minimum “firefighter 1” certification. Three of them are EMTs. Additional volunteers meet the certifications, but they have work and family obligations and cannot respond to as many calls, Casey said.

“We have more certified volunteers, but these are the active ones,” Casey said, defining active as those responding to at least 20 percent of the town's calls.

In the 1990s, the town had about 100 to 150 calls per year, and 40 to 50 responders between the two volunteer departments, Casey said.

Casey said most of the missed calls involved “basic life services," medical calls or injuries that were not life-threatening or services such as pumping flooded basements. Emergency dispatchers call for mutual aid from surrounding towns or from professional ambulance services: American Ambulance, Mohegan tribal ambulance or Lawrence + Memorial Hospital ambulance.

For calls that involved “advanced life services,” or serious, life-threatening cases, professional paramedics always are dispatched along with the Preston crews to assure trained responders arrive promptly, Casey said.

Preston gets a better response from volunteers for fires and major accidents and medical calls, Casey said, usually with four firetrucks and at least 10 firefighters, some working the incident and others assisting with traffic or other support services.

Casey submitted a budget request in March to add a part-time paid, per-diem 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. firefighter-EMT position at a cost of $35,000 per year, or $132 per shift. The person would work Sunday night through Friday morning.

The Board of Selectmen included the request in its proposed town government budget, but the Board of Finance cut it for now, inviting Casey and the town's Emergency Services Advisory Committee to its 7 p.m. meeting Wednesday to better explain the request. Casey will take the board up on its offer and hopes to bring supporters along, too.

Preston now has three paid firefighters: Casey, a full-time firefighter and a part-time per-diem firefighter. All three work daytime shifts, when volunteer response traditionally is low.

In 2016, there were 120 first- or second-shift calls with no volunteers responding from Poquetanuck, and 109 with no Preston City volunteers responding.

During most of those calls, the town's paid daytime firefighters would be available. Casey said after hours, he “keeps an ear turned” toward the scanner, and if no one responds immediately, he will start on the call. Sometimes, he will be on his way when volunteers respond and he can turn around.

Overnight hours when no paid staff are on duty are more problematic. Last year, 52 overnight calls went unanswered by Poquetanuck volunteers, and 77 had no response from Preston City volunteers.

Casey said in recent years he has requested a second per-diem firefighter, but the position has been cut in the budget each time. The problem has worsened over the past six to eight months and Casey hopes to persuade the finance board to restore the funding.

Board of Finance Chairman Norman Gauthier said the board wrangled over cutting the request, especially in light of Casey's report. But finance board members questioned whether one overnight per-diem firefighter would address the problem.

Casey said an overnight paid firefighter could drive apparatus to an incident and meet volunteers at a scene to complete a crew. The town's two ambulances now are stationed at Poquetanuck. The overnight firefighter would rotate between the two stations and would bring an ambulance to Preston City when working there for quicker response time.

The new position “assures a certified member would be responding in a timely manner,” Casey wrote in the report, and “assures that apparatus would be responding.”

c.bessette@theday.com

More info

Preston paid Fire Chief Thomas Casey will meet with Board of Finance at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Town Hall to argue for hiring a part-time paid per-diem firefighter for 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. shift.

Preston 2016 emergency responses

Approximately 700 total calls

172 calls with no volunteers from Poquetanuck Volunteer Fire Department.

52 calls between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. with no response from Poquetanuck volunteers.

186 calls with no volunteers from Preston City Fire Department.

77 calls between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. with no response from Preston City volunteers.

119 calls in which only paid Fire Chief Thomas Casey was the only certified responder.

19 calls in which paid Fire Chief Thomas Casey was the only Preston responder, all occurred between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.

193 calls with no Poquetanuck apparatus was brought to the scene.

305 calls in which no Preston City apparatus was brought to the scene.

43 calls in which paid Fire Chief Thomas Casey's equipped vehicle was the only Preston vehicle on scene.

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