There was a time in the not-too-distant past when dropped calls were extremely rare for the Saratoga Springs Fire Department.
But as the city has grown in population and popularity, so have its emergency calls. The department’s service calls grew by 8.1 percent last year, marking the third consecutive year of increases.
“It’s a busier city; it’s a busy place,” Public Safety Commissioner Christian Mathiesen said. “There’s just an awful lot going on in Saratoga Springs.”
The jump in calls — from 4,220 in 2013 to 4,566 in 2014 — hasn’t been seamless, either. Last year, the department had 25 dropped calls, meaning other agencies needed to respond.
“There are times because of the increase in volume, both engines and crews are called out,” he said. “Then you’re relying on mutual aid to cover your medical emergency.”
Though many of the calls were for ambulance service, the notion of the city not having the manpower to respond to a call for service is unusual and could suggest the department is at a tipping point with manpower. Chief Robert Williams said his department has traditionally had enough personnel on hand to respond even when simultaneous emergencies are called in.
“Ten years ago, if you said we’d be dropping calls, I’d say you’re crazy,” he said Tuesday. “The call volume wasn’t there. … It just wasn’t that busy.”
Pan to the present and it’s a much different story. The Fire Department took over ambulance coverage from the now-defunct Saratoga Emergency Medical Services in 2012, resulting in a dramatic 34 percent increase in service calls between 2011 and last year.
“We’re going from one call to the next call to the next call,” Williams said. “You get two or three calls in a row, you have no one to send.”
The nature of the calls has also moved toward emergency medical response, according to annual statistics compiled by Public Safety. About 72.5 percent of calls received last year were medical-related; about two-thirds of calls were medical-related in 2011.
The increased volume and dropped calls suggest the city may soon need to bring on additional firefighters to ensure adequate coverage. And that’s before factoring in a planned third fire district to cover the eastern edge of the city.
The city now employs about 60 firefighters. Staffing levels at the station on West Avenue and at the Lake Avenue firehouse are kept at about six per shift, though the latter sometimes has one extra.
Traditionally, Williams said, the two-station model has allowed the department to shift resources around the city when necessary. Increasingly, however, he’s finding these resources spread thin.
“We’re getting to that saturation point where we need to start thinking about how to add resources,” he said.
The question will be whether the City Council will budget for additional firefighters or simply rely on the department to change how it deploys the resources it has. Mathiesen said one option is to reduce the number of firefighters manning each engine, which would allow the department to add a third crew — possibly for the new station — using personnel already on the job.
“We can distribute the resources we have differently,” he said.
The firefighters’ union has rejected this approach. James Morrow, the union’s president, said a third station simply can’t pull resources from the two existing districts without creating a dangerous situation.
“When it comes to the third district station, the commissioner, the union and the chief, I don’t know if we’re all on the same page yet,” he said.
Yet with the land allotted for the long-awaited third district firehouse tied up in litigation, the focus now is on the immediate needs of the department. Ideally, Williams said, he’d like to add a second ambulance crew, which the union emphatically supports.
“It really comes down to funding; how do we pay for it,” he said. “We’ve reached the point where we need to start having that conversation.”
The money brought in by the ambulance service could be part of the answer. Morrow said annual revenue from the service is roughly $900,000, and he estimated a second crew could bring in an additional $200,000.
“To get a second ambulance would be beneficial to everybody,” he said.
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