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Sunday, March 16, 2014

Sunshine Week: They’re called fire departments, but in Greater Nashua, they don’t usually go to fires

EDITOR’S NOTE: Newspapers are watchdogs of government because of laws protecting the public’s freedom of information. Each year, through a series of Right to Know requests, The Telegraph uses public records to examine government effectiveness. A weeklong series of investigative stories begins Sunday, to coincide with Sunshine Week.

To read all of our Sunshine Week stories, visit www.nashuatelegraph.com/specialreportsopen
government. ...

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EDITOR’S NOTE: Newspapers are watchdogs of government because of laws protecting the public’s freedom of information. Each year, through a series of Right to Know requests, The Telegraph uses public records to examine government effectiveness. A weeklong series of investigative stories begins Sunday, to coincide with Sunshine Week.

To read all of our Sunshine Week stories, visit www.nashuatelegraph.com/specialreportsopen
government.

Most of us still call them fire departments, but there’s a reason fire rescue is sometimes the formal name: About 19 times out of 20, when a fire truck leaves a station anywhere in Greater Nashua, it isn’t going to a fire.

Public information from the National Fire Incident Reporting System, compiled for The Telegraph by the Office of the State Fire Marshal, tells the story:

Over the six years from 2006-2012, Nashua Fire Rescue went on more than 8,000 calls a year, but just 3.9 percent were for fires in the city. By contrast, 49 percent were rescue calls, including several hundred vehicle accidents each year.

“That is a trend that has been going since the 1970s,” Deputy State Fire Marshall Rob Farley said. “Back then in the ’70s, everything was burning down. Over the years, what has happened – building codes have changed, fire prevention efforts have changed, smoke alarms, sprinklers … the number of fires has fallen.”

Nashua Fire Rescue responds to about 300 fires a year in the city, but Fire Chief Brian Morrissey said only about 50-60 are big building fires – the sort that do structural damage or leave a structure uninhabitable – as compared with an appliance or chimney fire producing less damage.

“What has increased quite dramatically is other types of calls: hazard materials, false alarms, the dive team, service calls. … Certainly, the types of incidents we respond to is significantly more varied than they were in the late 1970s,” Morrissey said.

The story is similar elsewhere, even for departments lacking hazardous materials teams or dive teams.

Over the six-year period, 2.4 percent of Merrimack Fire and Rescue’s calls were for fires and 59 percent were for rescues; 1.7 percent of Hudson calls were for fires and 61 percent were rescues; 2.8 percent of Litchfield calls were for fires and 48 percent for rescues; 2.1 percent of Hollis calls were for fires and 50 percent for rescues.

The fire call percentages are similar in towns with separate ambulance departments – 4.9 percent of calls in Milford were for fires, 4.9 percent in Brookline, 6.5 percent in Amherst – although their percentage of rescue calls is much lower because sometimes only an ambulance goes to accident scenes.

Statewide, the numbers look the same.

Nick Mercuri, chief of the Bureau of Emergency Medical Services for the state, estimates that about 65 percent of all non-police emergency calls are rescue, medical-related, whether by
fire department, fire rescue or ambulance services.

But the mix varies widely by community: There is no state mandate for fire departments to provide any emergency medical expertise, Mercuri said. Smaller communities, which depend largely or entirely on on-call firefighters rather than paid crews as in Nashua, are much less likely to provide it.

Except for Nashua, all area departments saw a slight decline in total calls over the study period, although it was just a percentage point or two, and all saw slightly fewer fires in 2012 compared with the six-year average.

Morrissey said that while the number of big fires in the city has fallen sharply over his three decades in the business, he thinks it may be near its practical low point.

“It’s fairly stable at this point in time,” he said. “But until people are no longer a factor, I think we’re going to continue to see the same types of fires.”

The decline in calls in recent years was too small to be definite, but is hopeful.

“We have a community risk reduction program,” said Capt. Jason Smedick, of the Milford Fire Department. “There’s an all-hazards approach. We should see a decline in all sort of calls.”

“All-hazards” is the appropriate term.

“Since 1996, every Nashua firefighter is an EMT-basic or higher. It’s a qualification requirement to be hired,” said Morrissey, who noted that most trucks even carry defibrillators.

An EMT, or emergency medical technician, is a health care provider who is trained and legally allowed to administer various treatments in emergency situations. EMT-basic is the starting level; several other levels of EMT are licensed in New Hampshire leading up to paramedics, who can administer many drugs.

Nashua Fire Rescue has relatively few paramedics, partly because a situation requiring that level of care will usually be serviced by the city’s private ambulance service, AMR. Being a paramedic also requires a level of training and onboard equipment that can be difficult to maintain amid fire apparatus.

Nashua Fire Rescue has 38 first responders on duty at its six stations on weekdays, including administrators, and a total of 174 staff members, including clerical. That figure has declined slightly in the last decade: Fire staffing was 181 people in 2004.

“We are a first-responder EMS service, citywide, responding to all sorts of life-threatening emergencies –
strokes, breathing, falls,” Morrissey said. “Even as fires declined … the high end of our business is being able to be an all-hazards responder.”

For example, for a big accident on the F.E. Everett Turnpike, the city fire department would probably call out a rescue vehicle, which has extrication tools such as a Jaws of Life to get access to patients in the wreck, and a tanker truck in case there are flames or leaking gasoline and other toxic fluids – above the police presence and any ambulances called in for transportation and on-scene treatment of patients.

Different departments will roll different equipment in similar situations, depending on their staffing and needs.

As for the future, it seems likely that the sort of blaze that gets on the evening news will remain a small, and perhaps shrinking, part of fire departments’ daily life. But not of their image.

“The fire on Bridge Street –
that’s what people are going to continue to identify with the fire department and firefighters,” said Morrissey, referring to a March 8 blaze that destroyed an abandoned auto-repair shop.

David Brooks can be reached at 594-6531 or dbrooks@nashua
telegraph.com. Also, follow Brooks on Twitter (@GraniteGeek).