Staff shortages force East End firefighters to make stark choice: ambulance or fire truck
Emergency services in the East End have been hindered by a lack of staff for years, firefighters claimed yesterday.
The Clearwater Fire Station in St David’s has been tasked with handling medical and fire emergencies for the past six years, but a firefighter told The Royal Gazette that there was often not enough staff to operate an ambulance and a fire truck.
The firefighter added: “It has just gotten worse and worse. It has put us in a tough spot.
“We’re firefighters. Ethically, we want to give people the best treatment we can, but this has put us in the situation of choosing whether we provide fire or medical.
“We shouldn’t have to make that decision. We should be able to send both.”
He said that there had been many times in the last few years that Hamilton Fire Station has had to respond to calls in the east because a medical emergency had kept Clearwater firefighters occupied.
The firefighter explained that when the station got a medical emergency call, they would usually respond with an ambulance and two or three firefighters depending on the seriousness of the incident.
But, he added, because of low staffing levels, a medical call often left the station without the manpower to respond to a fire.
He said: “We sometimes only have four people to man two trucks. For safety reasons, you need a minimum of four just for the fire truck.
“We have had meetings with the Government and the Bermuda Hospitals Board to voice our concerns, but it felt like it was falling on deaf ears.”
He said that the staffing shortfall had sparked a dispute between the Bermuda Fire and Rescue Service and the Fire Service Association.
The FSA submitted a 21-day notice of industrial action before the dispute was sent to arbitration earlier this month.
But a settlement was reached before arbitration began.
The agreement meant that when the number of firefighters at the Clearwater station on shift were insufficient, the ambulance would be taken out of service and the King Edward VII Memorial Hospital would be responsible for medical coverage.
The change took effect yesterday.
When six firefighters are on shift at the Clearwater fire station, they will run the ambulance and the fire truck.
The firefighter said yesterday: “This morning we had six, so we were operating the ambulance, but this evening there will be no ambulance operating out of the East End.
“We will still respond to medical calls in the fire truck — we just won’t be able to transport patients.”
He said that there had been talks about alterations to the shift schedule to ease the problem but he had not heard anything concrete about additional staff being hired.
The firefighter added: “It’s kicking the can down the road. Eventually you are going to have retirements and that has been the problem.
“We had many recruit courses back in the day that were 20, 25 strong. Now those recruits are 20 years in and they are starting to retire in droves and we are just not keeping up with the numbers.”
An FSA spokesman said: “Our budget continues to be cut, our equipment continues to expire and not be replaced and our risk and expectations continue to grow.
“We’ve seen other essential services recruiting and having their voices heard while we are told there may not be any additions made for us, but rather more cuts and potentially closing of stations.
“We have been too quiet for too long. This is our stand. We feel it is time the public is made aware of the Fire Service’s plight.”
The FSA added that the public need to be aware that “coverage had been jeopardised” because of budget constraints and disputes over health and safety.
The statement continued: “The members of the FSA have battled with this decision to prioritise their own health and safety for the bigger picture as they are burdened with guilt that they will be letting their country, and in some instances, their own families down.
“This ultimatum should not exist and the responsibility to fix this should rest with the powers that be. We are asking for fairness.”
The dispute between firefighters and service management started after Renee Ming, the national security minister, admitted earlier this year that the island’s emergency services were plagued by staff shortages, dilapidated buildings and ageing equipment.
Funding for the Bermuda Fire and Rescue service was cut by $1.24 million to $13.1 million in February’s Budget.
Ms Ming added that money was also saved through not filling five firefighter vacancies.
The fire service’s training budget was slashed by half, to $151,000 and the amount available for the repair and maintenance of vehicles was also cut by 298,000 — down from $583,000 to $285,000.