May 5 2016

Police, Fire Departments Seeking Increased Manpower to Deal With Growth in Burlington

By: Rich Hosford

It’s no secret that Burlington has been growing and will continue to expand in the future. 

There have been new restaurants, apartment complexes, office buildings and houses built in the last handful of years with more on the way. There are also two new hotels in the works, new apartment complexes in the works and talks in progress for a new 40B affordable housing project. There is doubtlessly things we’ve missed in this list but readers get the idea. 

Two town organizations that have not grown in decades are the Burlington Police and Fire Departments. Both Police Chief Michael Kent and Fire Chief Steve Yetman say their departments are understaffed in light of the new demand brought on by the town’s growth. They are requesting staffing increases in the next few years to bring their departments to a level they say will help them meet the needs of the town and adequately ensure public safety. 


The police department is requesting one new officer position a year for the next five years. The fire department is asking for eight new positions, four this year and four next year. In all cases Town Meeting will be asked to vote for the budget increases to cover the salaries and benefits of the new employees. 


The public safety agencies each outlined their cases in staffing analysis reports. 


Police Department 


The police department has not increased the number of sworn personnel since 1989, the report states, leaving the number at 64 individuals. 

Kent said that based on the number of calls the department receives, he would ideally like to add five officers right away, but acknowledges that would be a big budget increase for one year. 

“In reality I could use the five right now but that’s a non-starter,” he said. “But I think five new members in five years will put the department in a good place.”


According to the report in 1989 the department received 6,633 service calls related to larcenies, malicious damage, auto theft, burglaries, traffic accidents, disturbances and alarms. In 2009 the department received 20,714 service calls (of all kinds) and from 2012 to 2013 the number of calls jumped from 26,821 to 42,947. 


The report says that new developments and retails spaces have had a big impact on the number of service calls. The rise of cyber-crimes has also contributed to an increase in calls, something the department did not have to worry about in 1989. 


Another area of increased policing is with the Drug/Vice Unit. In 2009, when the unit was larger than today, it had approximately 110 drug-related incidents and 13 long-term drug investigations, the report states. From 2010 to 2013 the unit had 471 drug-related investigation and 44 prostitution incidents. 

“In 2014 the Drug/Vice Unit had over 30 investigations,” the report states. “This figure includes several that have taken a significant amount of man-hours to complete. The unit also performed over a dozen prostitution investigations not including the “reverse sting.” 


Fire Department 


The fire department report says that no additional firefighters have been added to the roster since 1978 and it currently employs 66 members.  


In 1979 the department had a total of 2,406 responses and in 2015 it had 7,616 responses, and increase of 216 percent. Yetman said with that much growth in activity an increase in staff is necessary. 


“If you owned a business and you increased your business by over 200 percent, one of the things you’d have to look at is staffing,” he said. 


According to the report the department operates at the minimum staffing level of 11 personnel 75 percent of the time. And because the department has cross-manning, meaning the same person is available to staff a fire apparatus and an ambulance at the same, the concern is that when multiple calls come in there are not enough people to man all of the vehicles. 


In 2015 there were 268 times when Ambulance 1 was out of service due to not enough manpower, 477 times when Ambulance 2 was out of service and 268 times when both ambulances had nobody to man them. This at the same time when ambulance responses have increased 273 percent since the department last added personnel, the report states. 


“We’re looking to increase our staff by eight, or 2 per shift,” the chief said. “That would allow us to permanently man one ambulance.” 


The increase in responses means the department often has fewer people manning each response vehicle, which can be a safety issue. 


“There’s no law that says how many people you have on a piece of apparatus but there are standards and right now we’re not meeting those standards,” Yetman said. 


The increase in ambulance calls, the report says, is due to the number of residential homes, apartment buildings, assisted living homes, office space and retail over the years. 


“In 1979 we had no assisted living facilities,” Yetman said. “Now we have three of them.” 


The report says that another safety issue of having more calls and being short staffed is that often times all personnel are out in the field and not able to attend training exercises. 


“Because of our increasing call volume, it becomes difficult to conduct both in-house and outside hands-on training activities,” the report states. “Training sessions are constantly being interrupted for the need to respond to emergency calls.” 


Having everyone being called out all at once also cuts into site inspections where the department is seeking information on buildings to be entered into the dispatch computer system for more informed responses in case of an emergency. 


Town Meeting will consider the budget requests for additional funds for full time staff in 2017 during the May session starting no Monday. 

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