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A matter of life and death - and money
Updated On: Mar 28, 2011


Lack of overtime funds means fire trucks will replace ambulance in the city
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One of the city's ambulances will be parked with staffing falls below 13 workers per shift at the Fire Department. The move is intended to save on overtime coverage costs.   Ioanna Raptis/
March 09, 2011 2:00 AM
PORTSMOUTH — If a firefighter calls in sick or takes a vacation during the next four months, there's no overtime money in the budget to fill the shift, so one of two city ambulances will be parked, said Fire Chief Chris LeClaire.
But because all city firefighters are "cross trained" to battle fires and to work as emergency medical technicians and/or paramedics, emergency medical help will continue to be available, LeClaire said. The difference will be that the help may come on a fire truck instead of an ambulance, he said.
LeClaire said the only thing a crew on a fire truck can't do that one on an ambulance can, is transport patients.
Faced with a $100,000 budget shortage for the rest of the fiscal year, which ends June 30, LeClaire said if the Fire Department's staffing falls below 13 firefighters per shift, due to illness or vacation, only one ambulance will roll. Response times may be slower for ambulance transports, and Portsmouth will rely on neighboring towns for ambulance mutual aid, he said.
If a Portsmouth fire truck responds to a medical aid call, it will be staffed by two firefighters and an officer, all trained in emergency medical response, according to the chief.
"They'll be able to stabilize until an ambulance gets there," he said.
On March 3, the Fire Department reduced "minimum staffing" from 13 to 12 firefighters per shift and decided to park the ambulance at Station 2 on Lafayette Road when staff falls below 13. When that happens, the ambulance at the downtown Fire Station 1 on Court Street will cover the entire city, said the fire chief.
In the five days since that decision was made, Portsmouth has relied on mutual aid for ambulance service twice, according to fire officials. Fire Commission Chairman Richard Gamester said the ambulance at Station 2 covers 40 percent of emergency medical calls.
On Tuesday afternoon, LeClaire said he had 13 firefighters on and two ambulances in service, but he was unsure if that would hold true overnight.
"It's shift-to-shift, day-to-day," he said. "It's not a blame game. The numbers are what they are."
Gamester asked the City Council on Monday night to fund a $100,000 "supplemental appropriation" to staff the two ambulances for the remainder of the fiscal year. He told the council the Fire Department responds to 3,000 medical aid calls a year, and while apologetic for talking about emergencies and money in the same breath, he reminded that ambulance transports generate money.
LeClaire said Tuesday that $700,000 was transferred to the city's general fund last year from ambulance transports.
"But my first goal is public safety," LeClaire said. "An ambulance does not have the equipment to extricate someone from a car, to respond to (hazardous materials) situations — and it can't put out fires. The two guys on an ambulance are part of the firefighting crew."
For those reasons, an ambulance — not a fire truck — will be parked when staffing goes below 13 per shift, he said.
LeClaire commended cooperative agreements among neighboring communities to provide mutual aid for fire and ambulance calls. He said neighboring fire officials have expressed a willingness to pitch in more when staffing is low. But it's "certainly not their responsibility" to fill in for Portsmouth's budget gaps, he said.
"We've gotten to the bottom," Gamester said. "I don't think it's safe, even for the firefighters. And I worry for the general public."
The Fire Department's current budget is $6.7 million, and Gamester said if the council doesn't appropriate the additional $100,000, firefighters "will continue to do the best we can.
"People have a choice," he said. "They can go to the City Council and say they want this funded."
At Monday's City Council meeting, Gamester called the $100,000 shortfall "entirely predictable" and caused by level funding and rising costs.
"The shortfall is not due to overspending or mismanagement," he said. "The Fire Commission calls this undesirable situation to your attention so that you have a full understanding of what happens when essential city functions, such as fire and rescue, are underfunded."
Next year, LeClaire said he'll need to cut $245,000 from the fire budget to keep a flat budget. The retirement of Deputy Fire Chief Steve Griswold will save $115,484, leaving $129,747 left to cut, he said. Layoffs, closing one of three fire stations and parking fire trucks are all possible consequences, he warned.
The City Council is expected to discuss the fire budget at its March 21 meeting.
A matter of life and death - and money
$6.7 million: Fire Department's current budget
$245,000: The amount the fire department must cut to reach a zero increase in its fiscal year 2012 budget
$100,000: The Fire Department's budget shortage for the rest of the fiscal year, which ends June 30
13: Number of firefighters usually on duty per shift. When that number drops to 12, the ambulance at Station 2 on Lafayette Road will go out of service. The ambulance at the downtown fire station 1 on Court Street will cover the entire city. Backup will be provided by mutual aid crews from surrounding towns.
2: Times city has needed mutual aid since March 3, when funding for overtime shift coverage ended
$700,000: The amount transferred to the city's general fund last year from ambulance transport fees
$110,000: Potential loss of revenue for the city's general fund, due to loss of transportation fees charged by the Station 2 ambulance.
3,000: The number of medical aid calls the Fire Department responds to per year
40: The percentage of emergency medical calls handled by the Station 2 ambulance last year


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