Nick Chirekos has been working on behalf of every person who lives or works in Amherst since 2014, when he joined the Town’s Fire Department. The department’s call volume has increased by nearly 500% since then, but its staffing hasn’t increased at all. Says Chirekos, “We can’t do this anymore. It’s not fair, it’s not safe, it’s not appropriate, it’s not sustainable.”
This interview was conducted on June 8 and has been edited for brevity and clarity.
You were visibly moved when you looked at the books written for bereaved families of 9-11, mostly fire fighters. Was 9-11 an event that had a big effect on you? You were a kid at the time, right?
Yes, I was in school, 11 years old, and lived just north of New York City, in Mamaroneck. They notified all of us about what was going on, and knowing that my dad worked in the city was certainly nerve-wracking — even though I knew he was away on business on the other side of the globe. They did early dismissal that day, and I went home. What I remember so vividly was watching my mother, watching her be physically upset, watching her actually cry as she was trying to find a way to explain this to us; and we were all trying to grasp, trying to understand the severity of it, how the world had instantly changed, changed everything.
Did you have family members who were firefighters, a fire fighting tradition in your family?
None at all. I’m the only one.
Do you think 9-11 influenced you to become a firefighter?
I don’t think so, but my dad seems to be under the impression that it absolutely did. What happened is that when I was in high school, someone suggested that I volunteer for the fire department, give it a try. I did, and absolutely fell in love with it. I loved the people, the atmosphere, the camaraderie, everyone having each other’s back like a second family, cooking dinners together, all the things you mentioned when you told me about those books. And I loved how the fire service is constantly changing, it’s constantly dynamic — even though I love consistency and knowing what to expect.
What kind of work schedule do you have there?
We have a rotating schedule of 24 hours on, 24 hours off, 24 hours on, then five days off in a row.
But you have young children, right? With a schedule like that, it would be hard to share childcare responsibilities…
Oh yes. I have 10-month-old twin boys, and it’s all hands on deck all the time.
I read the Carlson Group’s report  about the Amherst Fire Department. One of its conclusions was that the needs here change significantly according to the season and the day and time of the week. What did you all make of that, was it accurate?
I agreed with parts of the report but not that part. Calls are very unpredictable here. They noted a series of peak hours and recommended adding a day shift on weekdays, like a 9 to 5 job. But of course emergencies happen at those times and also on Saturdays and Sundays and after 5 p.m. Adding that day shift wouldn’t solve our problem — our big problem is staffing — but still it became part of the agreement that was reached with the town, with a caveat that the town could act on the agreement at their discretion. And the town hasn’t chosen to implement it. The Town Manager has chosen not to put it in the budget. The Carlson Group’s report also concluded that what we were doing is unsustainable. And nothing has changed.
But I would have thought your call volume is dependent on when UMass is in session.
There seems to be no rhyme or reason to our call volume, it’s very unpredictable on the whole. This Town on the whole actually is unpredictable — it’s part of why I was so fascinated by it when I first came here and I still am. It’s like no other place I’ve ever heard about or read about, the clashing dynamics, the environment….
Seriously, an additional shift was part of your agreement with the Town but the Town hasn’t implemented it?
Right. Here’s what Local 1764, Fire Fighters International Association, AFL-CIO CLC says in this pamphlet, “There’s been no meaningful change to the minimum on-duty staffing levels [for Amherst] for several decades, despite the fact that call volume has increased by nearly 500%.” It seems as if we keep getting railroaded, with our call volume continuing to rise, and yet still we have no increase in staffing.
What was the last time that staffing of the Amherst Fire Department went up significantly?
It’s been some time. There was a SAFER grant back long before I was here, and I started here in October of 2014. The increase at that time was only because of the SAFER money. It’s a national program that picks up the costs for additional staffing for a year and then, over time, the town starts to take over more and more of it. A lot of fire departments rely on it to increase their staffing. The program still gives grants to towns, but we haven’t been receiving it. Or it just hasn’t been applied for. The union doesn’t have control over that.
What’s your position, by the way?
I’m a firefighter paramedic.
And in the local union?
I sit on the executive board.
Can you help me understand the seasonality of needs here?
I don’t believe there are any real, specific seasonal needs for the fire department here. There is a year-round, continuous public safety threat, and we need these firefighters all of the time, not part of the time, and not just during the day, all the time.
The public relies on us. Our call volume continues to rise…we need public safety to support the population within the Town. UMass is growing — we cover all of UMass, we cover everything. In the school year on your Thursday, Friday, Saturday nights, UMass does take up a portion of our time but other than that our regular call volume is just that the town needs us, and we need to support them. You can’t just rely on off-duty firefighters to come in, you can’t just say to people, “Come in when we need you. It isn’t sustainable, it just doesn’t work.
We have a minimum staffing of 8 and then we drop down to a minimum staff of 7, depending on the time of the year, for the entire town of Amherst. Right now, we’re at minimum staffing of 7. And that one additional person, when the colleges are in session, when we go to a minimum staffing of 8, is just not enough. We need to increase the overall number of firefighters, and we also need to increase our minimum number to adequately provide safe services to the town and visitors.
The national standard is two people per ambulance — everyone at the department is either a firefighter and paramedic, or a firefighter and advanced EMT, we’re all cross-trained — and three people per fire truck. When our three ambulances go out, there are only the two firefighters for the fire truck. That’s for the entire town. So they’ll call for station coverage and hope that one of the professional firefighters will come in, off-duty on their day off and supplement the department until they’re released. And if the professional-force off-duty firefighters can’t come in, we have to call for the call force and the student force, the auxiliary services, whose purpose is to supplement the professional firefighters. They aren’t meant to replace us, and relying on them continually is not sustainable. They have other careers and commitments, some of them have been to the “call force, volunteer force” fire academy, some have not. They can’t work on the ambulance.
Has your salary gone up since 2014?
Yes, we’ve had steady increases and cost of living adjustments per our collective bargaining agreement. Staffing has always been our biggest priority, getting more firefighters. It’s a direct, everyday concern that your safety relies on, and mine. I need to know that I’ve got enough help when that significant incident occurs in town. It doesn’t have to be fire-related. There are lots of high-acuity emergency medical calls in this town every day, and I want to know — the town wants to know — that when someone calls 911 for help, they’re getting the right resources and enough resources. Everyone is entitled to that.
What is “high acuity”?
Someone who’s very sick, it could be trauma-related, like from a car accident, or someone suffering a heart attack or stroke, or diabetic-related issues, all kinds of things, and those kinds of calls can require an additional paramedic or an additional EMT, and sometimes we don’t have those resources.
Tell me, how rigorous is firefighting training, for the professionals?
Paramedic certification was part of my college degree, but you can go to other local places, like Greenfield Community College, which has a fantastic Paramedic Certificate Program.
Paramedic training is about 18 months, including classroom time, hospital time (we go and work with doctors and nurses in the hospital setting), and precepting time on an ambulance with an approved preceptor. I did about 300 hours at the hospital and an additional 300 hours on an ambulance with a preceptor. Professional fire training is at the Mass. FireFighting Academy. When I went it was 10 weeks, five days a week. And then for the first year [on the job], you’re on probation.
And call force training?
The call force are people, often residents of the town, who are highly committed to helping the department out, to supplement us, but it isn’t their job. We’re expecting a lot from them when in reality everyone’s safety relies on having more full-time firefighters.
Do you want to go into more detail? How bad could it get?
Within the last month we had a fire related incident that resulted in only one captain on a fire truck responding while every other on-duty firefighter was committed to other emergency calls going on in town. A propane tank was actively on fire and leaking. Then the Assistant Chief showed up, and it was still just them for a period of time.
The captain was alone so who was driving the truck?
The captain was driving the truck. Per truck there should be a captain or officer, and two firefighters.
How many more professionals are needed for the town of Amherst to be considered appropriately staffed?
A starting place would be minimum staffing at 11, enough to adequately staff four ambulances and one fire truck. Minimum is the goal, although ideally, it would be great to have 15 or 16 firefighters on duty each day. The demand, the call volume is there.
What about equipment?
One of the other hot topics that’s going on here is our ladder truck that very much needs to be replaced. It’s a 1988, 100-foot platform ladder truck and it’s currently the oldest ladder truck in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. A platform ladder is a long ladder with a bucket on the end.
You’d think Amherst would have better than the oldest in the Commonwealth.
We’ve been trying to get it replaced for quite some time — we’ve put it in our budget every year and then it’s been continuously pushed off, taken off before it makes it to financial planning. It’s a significant piece of equipment, it has to be reliable.
A ladder truck is used for example to give firefighters roof access, to help pull people from windows if needed, to get water to high places … we can flow 1,000 gallons of water a minute from the ladder truck to high points.
How do you reach the upper parts of buildings like the UMass library and the new downtown buildings like One East Pleasant?
The ladder truck would serve a significant purpose in helping get people out. But there’s no ladder truck that’s going to get to the top of the UMass library — those fires are fought from the inside, we rely on standpipe connections. We take the hose and tie into those, and pump water from the fire truck up to them, and that will activate the sprinkler heads.
UMass has a fire division under its Department of Health and Safety on campus, and they do a fantastic job at maintaining all of that equipment in the buildings, and the fire pumps that are already in the buildings to help get water to whatever floor.
But they don’t have their own fire department. And they do not have their own ambulances.
I guess I always thought they did. Is that a common misperception?
Well, a lot of times people do think they have their own fire department and ambulances. They do not.
A building like the Graduate Research Center at UMass must have a lot of crazy chemicals, high hazard chemicals, that you would have to deal with.
I wonder how much UMass reimburses the town for your equipment and your training and staffing?
I can’t speak to how UMass contributes towards our budget. There used to be a working relationship with the Town, where they would give us some extra money for coverage on the weekends but that has fallen apart, it’s no longer a thing. They’d staff an extra fire fighter or two for us over the weekend.
There’s so much the fire department staff has to know about hazardous materials.
There’s a lot. We know how to identify the materials and provide a safe space for everyone to maintain, but the actual removal of the hazardous materials is handled by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. There’s a team at the state level that is dispatched to help us.
If there’s a fire at a lab at UMass, what happens? You already know what chemicals are used in that lab and you quickly try to figure out the details of every chemical ?
They’re doing a lot of really cool stuff over there, unbelievable research that’s occurring there. Anyway, within any one of those buildings, there are fire alarm panels that indicate which fire alarm has been activated, so we know where that is, and we’ll start there. We know what materials are there. UMass’s Environmental Health and Safety shows up with us, and they are amazing.
This Town seems more complicated than where I used to live, Leverett, where you just have houses and the railroad lines. What town can you compare us to?
This is a very busy Town to be staffed with only 7 or 8 fire fighters at a time, and it’s a pretty significant population. The City of Northampton has a similar call volume and they have nearly double the number of fire fighters at any given time! Every town and city is going to have their own challenges and hazards, you just have to be prepared for it.
I came across a recent fire fighting article about the problems of new building design and materials — that they’re more combustible and toxic than they used to be, that open space and clear sight-lines result in faster, hotter fires…
Flow path– with open space, there’s no restriction to airflow — fire needs oxygen to grow, get bigger and move around. And when you have these open floor plans, all kinds of materials are in the wide open, with free flowing oxygen, to provide fuel for the fire. Faster, hotter.
Why are the fires hotter and faster?
That would include the materials — the plastics in so many things, the joists that are made of compressed wood … it burns faster than the old wood, heavy timber, or steel. The buildings look fantastic and can be built faster and cheaper, but they increase the fire load.
Do you want to talk about needing a new fire station, the conditions at the central fire station?
Sure, but at the end of the day, staffing has the biggest impact on everyone’s well-being and everyone’s safety. Conditions at the central fire station are deteriorating. It’s a very old building that can no longer adequately provide housing and a work environment for both the equipment that the Town has purchased and the firefighters who occupy it.
And firefighters are breathing bad stuff…
The standard now is that living spaces are no longer allowed to be built over where the fire trucks or ambulances are stored. Now, all of our bunk rooms are directly above the garage, so to mitigate it we have a system that sucks all the exhaust out and safely gets rid of it outside the building. Even with this system there is still residual exhaust that makes it into the station. You can see it on the paint in the garage bay.
What’s an engine? How many do we have?
It carries staff, it has a pump on it, a tank of water, and lots of hoses. Ladder trucks don’t usually have pumps, they get water from one of the engines. We have five engines and they’re in fairly good shape, although some are reaching the end of their useful lifespan.
There are massive training needs too, right?
There is always new technology, something new to learn about. We do a lot of on-shift training. We’ll go out and flow water, operate the pump on the truck which is a whole skill set, manage pressure on various hoses, and throw ground ladders [to get to upper stories]. We walk through new buildings before construction is complete, we’ll see where the alarm panels are, little nuances of the buildings like how the rooms are designed, so we’re familiar with the building. With fires in homes, we always look in every room and every closet to make sure no one is there. Life safety above everything else.
Do you still get cats down from trees?
I’ve never had to do it and don’t know anyone who has had to do it, but I suppose it’s probably still a thing.
Ideally, what do you want the most?
I want, Local 1764 wants, safe and adequate staffing to provide the highest level of fire suppression and EMS calls and pre-hospital care for residents of the Town and their visitors. I’m not going to tell the Town Manager, the Town Council, or whoever is allocating funds, how to do this, but it is a long-standing issue that needs to be addressed. The staffing issue directly affects everyone in town and their visitors and the fire fighters themselves.
Do most of the firefighters live here in town?
Not at all. I think three live here [out of 45].
That’s a big deal, in my opinion. Why don’t many of our professional fire fighters live in our town?
Cost? For me at least, I live just over the Notch, in Granby. I love this Town. I would love to live here.
I think affordability is a big issue here [not housing per se but affordable housing].
I came here because I did my student ride time with the fire department here, and I absolutely fell in love with it, the Town and the Fire Department. I was what, 20 years old, coming from New York City, and I loved the clashing dynamics of the Town, between the school, and the younger people in town, and the older population, and some woods over here and some high-rise buildings over there. My wife and I are both super excited to be here, we like it a lot.
If there is a new fire station in South Amherst, then the central fire station would be… what?
Very much needed. If we go by National Fire Protection Association standards, and they set the standards, we should have three fire stations here in town.
So a South Amherst fire station should be in addition to the central fire station, not replacing it? Three fire stations.
What happens routinely and regularly is that there aren’t enough fire fighters — there are only one or two people — to cover all of Amherst, and for station coverage we have to call in off-duty firefighters — call force, career force, student force. It happens more than 100 times a year, sometimes more than 300 times in a year. That’s not safe, that’s not appropriate, that’s not sustainable, that’s not fair. It’s not fair to the residents to have to worry that they don’t have adequate fire or ambulance coverage.The town manager, since long before Paul Bockelman, has known about this and it’s never been addressed. We’ve made the current Town Manager aware of this many, many times.
None of it is OK. People don’t think about [inadequate staffing for the fire department] until they need it, but firefighters here are stretched so thin, pushing themselves so far, and it doesn’t work anymore. This has been ignored for so long, and it can’t be like this any more.
Thank you. I hope I can call you and ask some follow-up questions.
Feel free to call any time. Twins never sleep.
Kitty Axelson-Berry has retired from her self-publishing service specializing in memoirs and family histories. She was the editor-in-chief of the Valley and Springfield Advocate newspapers in the 1980s, and has lived in the Amherst area since 1971. She raised three daughters in the Amherst Public Schools and was a member of Town Meeting. She is a member of the editorial board of The Amherst Indy.