The statue outside Portsmouth Fire Station 2 on Route 1 completely defines its pros: a firefighter, on a ladder, cradling a child in his arms as he performs a rescue.
At one time, this perception was all that was needed to ensure that communities had enough dedicated people who would rush to their aid amid fires, accidents, natural disasters or medical emergencies.
Today that is not the case, and departments across the coast are struggling to staff their positions, while fire chiefs worry that when people dial 911, the failure to respond quickly can be surprising and in some cases life threatening. .
“Our benchmark is to reach 90% of calls for help in five minutes,” said Deputy Fire Chief Bill McQuillen of Portsmouth, Seacoast’s largest full-time fire department. “But at some point it all comes down to people and equipment.”
“The firefighting shortage is a huge problem in New Hampshire and across the country,” said Chief Ed Warren of the East Kingston Guard Fire Department. “Every department is struggling with staff right now. “
The sentiments expressed by McQuillen and Warren were echoed by all of the Seacoast fire chiefs interviewed, whether they were those running full-time services – like Portsmouth, Exeter, Hampton, Seabrook and North Hampton – or those who use on-call services, daily and partial allowances. staff on time – like East Kingston, Hampton Falls or Brentwood.
Even jobs that were once coveted in full-time departments take months to fill, according to their bosses.
“I don’t know what it is,” Seabrook chief Bill Edwards said. “There seems to be a change. There are so many more things, like technology and computers, that kids want to do these days than being a firefighter. “
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“Everyone has staff issues, so much so that helping each other is always emphasized,” Hampton chief Mike McMahon said. “There are a whole bunch of reasons. Wages and benefits certainly make sense, but it is desire.
The number of applicants is decreasing
According to Exeter Fire Chief Eric Wilking, there was a time when 200 people applied every time positions were posted. These days he is lucky enough to get 25, and these may not have the firefighter I, firefighter II, EMT and physical fitness test certifications the candidate needs to be considered for a job. .
McQuillen added that by the time qualified candidates are ranked among those he would hire, sometimes they are no longer available because they have taken other jobs. Portsmouth has looked for firefighters three times this year, he said.
Warren said firefighters are so in demand that chiefs often don’t interview potential firefighters, candidates interview chiefs.
Chefs are working to fill the niches
To attract more applicants, some departments are lowering the requirements where possible, accepting basic EMT certificates instead of insisting on advanced certification, for example. And due to the high cost of living on the coast, some have widened the residency requirement, as has Exeter.
Wilking said the new generation of firefighters are not only concerned with wages and benefits, but also working conditions, free time to be with their families and opportunities for advancement. Small departments of 30 or less cannot always offer everything. The result is a relatively new phenomenon of firefighters leaving after a few years to take up jobs in other communities or other professions.
In addition, McQuillen said, the number of on-call firefighters, who historically formed the “fuel system” for potential new recruits for full-time service, is declining and is affecting the profession.
Volunteer firefighters on duty are even harder to find
In sparsely populated communities, hiring a full-time fire department is considered too expensive. In East Kingston and Hampton Falls, on-call firefighters are responding to the needs of their communities, with per diem / part-time firefighters increasing coverage in some locations, such as Brentwood.
Firefighters on call are the men and women who give up everything, quit their other full-time jobs, tables, beds, and rush to fires, car crashes or medical emergencies in their communities when called upon. . They are only paid when they work and are required to train and acquire firefighter and EMT certifications. Decades ago, dozens of residents registered for guard posts, many feeling it was their duty to their community.
“When I got here,” said Brentwood Fire Chief Joseph Bird, “when there was a fire you almost had to chase the firefighters (on call) out of the fire truck. When we got to a fire, five or six others would come in a van because they wanted to help.
But societal changes in the workforce make it difficult to recruit and retain on-call staff, according to Warren, Bird and Chief Jay Lord of Hampton Falls.
“Back then there were a lot more people living and working in the same city,” Lord said. “They were well established in their communities and available to respond when called upon. Those days are over. People live in Hampton Falls but they work in Boston.
“Before, most firefighters on duty were residents with businesses in town or they worked close enough to respond when called,” Bird said. “But everyone’s lifestyle has changed. Most of these towns are now dormitory communities.
Most on-call services need 30 to 50 trained on-call firefighters to ensure that sufficient numbers are available when needed. Leaders are prepared to pay the cost of training and equipping newcomers to the field, but there may be a quid pro quo.
Warren, like the other guard leaders, takes on novices with the right skills. He provides mentoring and equipment and helps them get their certifications. But, given the financial investment a city is making in new on-call firefighters, Warren wants them to agree to stay a few years before moving on to full-time duty.
Some stay for decades, as Warren, Lord and Bird did, others take full-time positions in another community.
“I don’t blame anyone who has the desire to go full time,” Lord said. “If we can get people and they get hired (elsewhere), that says a lot for our service here in Hampton Falls. But it has become a challenge to find replacements.
Service calls continue to increase
The pressure on their services isn’t just about hiring qualified personnel, according to Seacoast fire chiefs. It’s not just that society has changed, they say, it’s that society’s expectations and needs have changed.
New Hampshire’s population is among the oldest in the country, and older residents result in more frequent calls. When added to the state’s opioid crisis, these factors lead to an increase in the number of medical service calls in all departments, taxing their limits.
In Exeter, there were 1,800 calls for service five years ago, Wilking said, that number has risen to 4,000.
“Twenty, thirty years ago, if you broke something or severely cut your finger, you went to the hospital,” Wilking said. “Today you call 911 and the ambulance answers with two or three people inside. We see a lot of non-emergency medical calls, but we answer everyone. “
As fire and safety codes improved and fires became less frequent, the job of the firefighter has changed dramatically over the years, McQuillen said.
“There has been a change,” he said. “Seventy percent of our calls are medical these days.”
The increase in telephone numbers presents challenges in larger communities, but “for the small towns that dot the coast,” Wilkins said, it’s an even bigger hurdle, exacerbated since registering firefighters on the coast. call has become so difficult.
North Hampton has full-time, on-call firefighters, Chief Jason Lajoie said, and he believes the staffing shortage is currently linked to a generational shift that has resulted in fewer people in all jobs in the function. public, such as firefighting, police, education and nursing.
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Yet “when someone calls 9-1-1,” said Lajoie, “they expect highly trained professionals to show up when they need them in minutes.”
To meet this demand, North Hampton equipped itself a few years ago with 14 full-time firefighters and only two on-call firefighters. Other small communities may consider something similar, but it’s not an inexpensive route, he added.
“Providing a full-time fire service comes at a cost,” Lajoie said. “It’s certainly not a one or two firefighter operation either. It takes the right staff to do the job efficiently and most importantly, safely. “
Or is it time to consider starting a different dialogue, asked McQuillen. If what worked before becomes impractical, should we at least explore the possibility of changing the status quo?
“Maybe we need to look at what we’re doing and consider regionalization,” McQuillen said. “But it’s not a comfortable conversation. There are a lot of political questions involved, like taxpayers saying, “Why are my taxes going to pay for things in other communities?”