Fire officials throughout the state are voicing concerns about potential service cuts or layoffs within their departments as a result of financial impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Todd Germain, chief of the Portsmouth Fire Department, said the city is worried about its tax revenue come December. His department has been asked to prepare a budget with no spending increase.
“With zero percent increase for us, we are looking at a loss of services,” Germain told Sen. Jeanne Shaheen during a video conference roundtable on Wednesday.
While the department may be able to stall layoffs, it would still likely result in a reduction of service such as not staffing an ambulance or not staffing a fire station, according to Germain.
In Berlin, the fire chief says his community does not have as strong an economy as Portsmouth.
“Everyone from the mayor down is very concerned about next year,” said James Watkins, chief of the Berlin Fire Department, adding there are already talks about potential layoffs next year.
Shaheen said she is hearing revenue concerns from town administrators expressing uncertainty about federal dollars as cities and towns prepare their budgets for the upcoming year.
The CARES Act did not not provide as much financial assistance to first responders as it probably should have, said Shaheen, who is hopeful the second round will address some of those concerns and allow municipalities the flexibility to backfill budgets to make up for money spent on virus-related items.
“This pandemic is not going away as fast as we hoped it might … I want to make sure we have the support we need,” she told firefighters.
Jeremy LaPlante of the Keene Fire Department said his primary concern is that current Medicare regulations only allow for reimbursements to municipalities if a patient is transported to a hospital. For some of these COVID-19 calls, patients are not necessarily being transported, he said.
For Keene, the ambulance revenue is about $1.2 million a year, but only if transports occur, said LaPlante, who stressed the urgency of changing the reimbursement model for EMS delivery services.
“It is an emotional drain on the first responders,” Glenn Davis, president of the New Hampshire State Firemen’s Association, said of the pandemic.
There is no fire that will be extinguished, said Davis, explaining calls for COVID-19 are very repetitive.
Shaheen agreed, saying first responders and communities will need assistance throughout the next year or two to address the crisis.
In Nashua, about 20 firefighters were quarantined at some point throughout the past couple of months, according to John McAllister, president of the Nashua Firefighters Association, who said none of them tested positive.
“This has changed our response to all medical calls,” said McAllister, adding personal protective equipment that was never used before is now common practice.
He said he does worry that if there is a surge in the fall, the PPE might not be available.