MERRIMACK — With hundreds of new apartment units in town and more on the way, Fire Chief Mike Currier says his department needs additional manpower.
“We have been requesting firefighters for a while,” Currier said on Monday.
Aside from additional residents, the opioid crisis is also impacting the call volume at the fire department, as well as other factors, according to Currier.
In 2010, Merrimack firefighters responded to 2,500 calls for service; in 2019, they responded to 3,163 calls for service.
“Nine years later we are looking at a 23 percent increase in calls,” Currier said.
But it isn’t just about the numbers, explained Currier, but rather the shift in patient needs and the back-to-back calls that are putting a strain on the department.
“What is happening is that we end up with more difficult calls that require more personnel,” he said, adding some patients with mobility issues because of their weight may require additional staff.
The fire department currently staffs nine firefighters for each of its four shifts. Currier is hoping to secure funding for four additional firefighters, which would allow 10 firefighters to be working during each shift. The cost for four more firefighters is about $500,000 a year, which includes retirement costs and health insurance.
“There are indicators, from these detailed reports that we have, that there are times during a particular month where we are stretched very thin,” Town Manager Eileen Cabanel told the town council last week.
Still, Cabanel said she has not yet been provided with all of the data that she needs to present a formal request for more firefighters to the town council. Cabanel did not include funding for the new firefighters in her proposed budget, specifically because she was reassured that a grant would be available to pay for those positions, she said.
Instead, Cabanel included about $50,000 in overtime costs in the fire department’s proposed spending plan.
Assistant Fire Chief Matt Duke said the 2019 FEMA Safer grant is designed to provide staffing to ensure adequate fire and emergency response nationwide.
“It is a federal grant provided to municipalities to increase their staffing levels to meet the growing needs of communities across the country,” said Duke.
In 2018, there were 374 FEMA Safer grants awarded for a total of $350 million distributed. If Merrimack applies and receives the grant for four new firefighters, the money would be distributed throughout a three-year cycle.
The federal government would contribute $311,062 for each of the first two years of the grant, while the town would contribute $103,687 in each of the first two years. In year three, the grant would award nearly $270,000, while the town would be responsible for about $145,000.
Although the fire department can apply for the grant in March, the awards will likely not be announced until July, and the funding will not be available until later in the year, according to Duke.
Currier said the department could either seek funding in its proposed budget for the four firefighters, or seek the grant.
“We are tossed between the two right now. We may need the firefighters now,” he said, explaining the grant process will take time. More data will be presented to town officials on Jan. 23.
“I feel like we are in a catch-22 situation right now,” said town councilor Nancy Harrington. “If we consider putting in four (firefighters) in the budget, that basically negates the grant entirely.”