Public Comment: Better Funding Of Amherst Fire Department Urgently Needed To Address Dangerous Conditions

Photo: Amherst Firefighters Local 1764

The following public comment was offered at the Amherst Town Council meeting of November 8, 2021.

My name is Ben Graham, I am the president of the Amherst Firefighters Union Local 1764. I am here today to urge the town council and the town manager to start the process of properly funding and supporting your public safety, specifically your firefighter/paramedics and your fire department. The Amherst Fire Department is drastically understaffed, undersupported and in need of help.

The Amherst Fire Department is responsible for the primary fire and EMS responses, life safety inspections, fire prevention and code enforcement for the town of Amherst. Your fire department is responsible for all hazardous and emergency calls for all 39,000 residents in the Town of Amherst plus the 39,000 students and staff at the three colleges located in town (Amherst, Hampshire and UMass). That means within the 27.7square miles in this town, the fire department is responsible for almost 78,000 people. We are also the primary ambulance and EMS provider for the towns of Pelham, Leverett, and Shutesbury increasing our response district to over 104 square miles and 82,000 people.

We attempt to cover these 82,000 people with a seven or eight person minimum for on duty staff at all times. Your fire department attempts to staff two fire engines or three ambulances with seven people. I say or in that previous sentence as we cannot physically be in two separate places at once, nor can we do the work of two people as one person. All of our apparatus are “cross-staffed”, meaning it’s essentially, one or the other.

For a fair comparison Northampton has 32,000 residents. The Northampton Fire Department ran a total of 7,394 emergency calls with 5,495 ambulance calls in 2019. The Amherst Fire Department covered 82,000 people and ran 5,741 emergency calls in with 4,192 Ambulance Calls in 2019. Our staffing problems also affect other communities and people suffer because of it. We were unable to respond to over 105 EMS calls and had to request mutual aid ambulances from other communities.

Northampton has a comparable call volume to Amherst but they have a minimum of 13 firefighters, almost two times that of Amherst. It’s also worth noting they also have a hospital in their city, whereas our nearest hospital 8.5 miles away from our central fire station. Our call volumes in Amherst are tracking to be the highest they’ve been in the last three years, yet nothing has changed for the better. In fact things appear to be getting worse.

We have a 33 y/o ladder truck that needs to be replaced. Our ambulances are being replaced less frequently than what is acceptable. Our newest in service ambulance has over 80,000 miles on it. It was purchased in 2018.. We recently had to borrow one from Northampton for a week because three out of our five ambulances were being repaired or decommissioned.

I wish it was only our equipment that was being worn down and broken, and our fire stations that were too small, outdated and in unacceptable conditions. Our most valuable assets are wearing down and getting damaged, those firefighters who respond to the calls and get the work done. Too many of your firefighters are getting physically injured in a multitude of ways. They are suffering mental health injuries from performing their duties without enough help, and without working equipment.

On behalf of my fellow workers and the residents of Amherst, I urge the Town Council and the Town Manager to begin the process of increasing the staffing levels for the Amherst Fire Department, and increase the budget of the fire department so we can start to fix what has been ignored for far too long. The longer our issues continue, the more people will suffer and the more expensive it will be.

If anyone has any questions, please reach out to me. I have plenty more to share. I promise you that your firefighters want to work with you to ameliorate the Amherst public safety issues, but we can only do so much by ourselves.

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7 thoughts on “Public Comment: Better Funding Of Amherst Fire Department Urgently Needed To Address Dangerous Conditions

  1. I seem to remember that, several years ago, a decision was made to purchase diesel ambulances because, although they were significantly more expensive than standard engines, they would last several hundred thousand miles of operation- 80,000 miles was supposed to be a drop in the bucket for a diesel. Did the decision prove to be true? Are the ambulances proving to have significantly longer lives ? How is that 60% of our ambulances are out of service at one time (assuming there have been no accidents)?

  2. Oh, but Ben, we “need” a much larger and better outfitted library that will “serve” many more than just those residents in your jurisdiction. After all, we “must” encourage non-residents and local tax payers to our downtown with a facility that does not, can not, nor will not address their health and safety needs.
    Here’s one for you to understand the priorities in “our” town: the school budget saw a $100,000 decrease for next year, but now we may need to add $75,000 to the budget for a dog park. Just saying….

  3. To answer some of the questions above, the ambulances were not out due to accidents or collisions. 1 ambulance was decommissioned and stripped for parts due to it being very worn down and already past its expected lifespan. We were expecting a new ambulance in June but we still have not received that ambulance due to things outside of our control. As for the other 2 that were out, they were not out of service due to engine specific issues. The engines themselves appear to be in decent working condition right now, though I cannot say that with 100% accuracy as I am not a diesel mechanic. However, the other parts of the vehicle still break down and wear out. Repairs to large vehicles like ambulances and fire engines tend to take longer and require specialized shops depending on what is wrong with them. I know that there have been delays in vehicles returning to service due supply chain issues, repair shops ordering the wrong part, finding another issue while repairing one part, etc.

    There are also a lot of complex systems involved in an ambulance, and strict state and federal standards that need to be met as a paramedic level ambulance is almost a small emergency room put in a box that is then attached to a truck. The miles on the vehicle are not necessarily the only measurement of use, the hours on the engine are a factor as well. The vehicles are often left running on scenes to keep the lights on for safety purposes. Ambulances also need to be climate controlled as the medications on board are easily affected by temperature, and so are the patients inside the truck. Hopefully the new hybrid ambulance we are scheduled to receive soon will help decrease some of these issues. That is also a newer technology and could come with new problems, I personally believe that it will be an overall benefit.

    The trucks also require repairs for a multitude of reasons because they are 20,000lb vehicles driving to emergencies which means the brakes and suspension systems tend to wear out faster than a standard vehicle would. Plus they drive on New England roads in New England weather, often when most vehicles have the luxury of not being on the roads. Some times they aren’t even driving on roads because emergencies happen everywhere.

  4. Thanks to Amherst Firefighters Union Local 1764 president Ben Graham for so informative a piece on some of the Amherst Fire Department’s unmet needs. He makes clear that, day in and day out, these put not only Amherst residents’ property but their lives at risk unnecessarily.

    At the same time, Town Council wants a large, unnecessary Jones Library demolition/construction project. Its costs to the Town cannot possibly be kept at the $35.8 million determined in 2016. That figure includes only a 3-year cost escalation. We’re two years beyond that already.

    The life of the mind is great. But its prerequisite’s the life of the body. President Graham is telling us that the latter is in jeopardy in Amherst. Please, Town Councilors, take our Amherst residents’ physical safety seriously. Find a way to get our valiant but overstretched Fire Department professionals what they need. The rest of us need it, too.

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