Sue Gormly questioned what her family would do if her father’s barn were to catch fire and the Middletown Fire Department’s tanker truck wasn’t available to respond “because they don’t have the manpower to use it,” she said.
MIDDLETOWN — Sue Gormly stood outside her father’s house on Mitchell’s Lane on Monday morning, surrounded by sweeping fields, and complained of the lack of fire hydrants in the immediate vicinity.
Gormly questioned what her family would do if her father’s barn were to catch fire and the Middletown Fire Department’s tanker truck wasn’t available to respond “because they don’t have the manpower to use it,” she said.
The Middletown Fire Department has the smallest shift size on Aquidneck Island. Each shift has five firefighters, a shift captain and a civilian dispatcher, but one firefighter is often off on vacation time, out sick or otherwise unavailable, and so it’s often four firefighters on duty; the department has 27 firefighters plus the chief, The Daily News reported previously.
Representatives with Middletown Firefighters Local 1933 and the Rhode Island State Fire Fighter Association have voiced their concerns over the last several weeks of the size of the Middletown Fire Department, framing the shift size as a public safety concern since resources are often depleted with one call for service, and so there's a heavy reliance on mutual aid from neighboring departments.
Tanker trucks are deployed to areas that don’t have fire hydrants to quench flames, according to firefighter John Jordan, president of Middletown Firefighters Local 1933. Middletown’s fire department is the only one on Aquidneck Island equipped with a tanker truck, according to fire department officials.
The Middletown Fire Department’s tanker carries 2,500 gallons of water, Jordan said. Engine trucks carry water too, he noted, just not as much as tankers. Engine trucks will carry approximately 750 gallons of water, Jordan said. Ladder trucks don’t typically carry water.
Though the Newport and Portsmouth fire departments have no tanker trucks, off-island Newport County towns Jamestown, Little Compton and Tiverton all have tanker trucks in their fleets (Jamestown has two while Little Compton and Tiverton each have one, according to fire department officials and fire department websites). But if there were a fire on Mitchell’s Lane and Middletown firefighters were tied up on another call, Gormly said it would take those other departments with tankers much too long to arrive at Mitchell’s Lane.
Jordan said the lack of fire hydrants in certain areas of town is more of an infrastructure issue. "It's not so much me as a firefighter through the union stuff," he said. "The fire department kind of has to adapt...we look at the demographics and [geographic makeup] of the town and then we try to plan accordingly."
But,"we're short-staffed," he added. If there's a fire in a non-hydrant area, there may be "nobody in the station to grab the tanker to bring out there...we cross-staff the tankers."
Gormly said her father has lived in his Mitchell’s Lane house for 26 years; Gormly couldn’t personally recall any fire response issues in the time he’s been there, she said.
“This area hasn’t really been [affected by] major fires, knock on wood,” Gormly said. But she noted continued housing development in the area. She feels OK with medical emergency responses since the Middletown Fire Department is less than five minutes down the road, Gormly said, and she pointed to the close proximity of the Portsmouth Fire Department if they need to step in, too. It’s just the chance of a fire in that area that unsettles her.
"Residents on the east side of the Town asked the Town Council to investigate extending the public water supply including access to drinking water and fire hydrants in 2016," Town Administrator Shawn Brown said in an email to The Daily News. "The Town Council engaged a consultant to design the system and estimate the cost of construction. The project was presented to the east side neighborhoods and property owners were asked to vote whether they were in favor of the project or not. Ultimately, the project was voted down because property owners did not want to pay for the betterment charge that would be assessed against their properties."
"The Town has recently required large developments to construct cisterns that would hold a reserve of water for the purposes of fire protection," Brown added in his email. "The Planning Board is also looking [into] cistern regulations and encouraging the installation of residential sprinklers."
With a focus on alarm calls (what Brown defines as alarms, hazardous materials, brush fires, car fires and structure fires) in areas of town with no fire hydrants, Brown said in an email to The Daily News that for every 1,000 alarm and EMS calls received by the Middletown Fire Department, "[w]hereas the Department has received no other calls for service in the prior 60-minutes, approximately 5 alarm service calls to [no-hydrant] areas of Town, or an experience rate of 0.49% [and whereas] the Department has received one-or-more calls for service in the prior 60-minutes, approximately 1 alarm service call to [no-hydrant] areas of Town, or an experience rate of 0.07%."
The Middletown Fire Department received 3,397 total calls for service in 2019 through Nov. 30, Middletown Fire Chief Peter Faerber told The Daily News previously. Of that total, 2,495 were for emergency medical calls and eight for structure fires, he said. Faerber, who has since announced he is retiring in February, did not respond to an email Monday requesting comment.
“I believe that it’s time to put water throughout the whole town of Middletown," Robert Sylvia, Town Council president, said Monday. "However I do understand the financial burden it would have on some people that have large properties.”
Gormly said the Middletown Fire Department has a tanker truck but lacks “the manpower to use it;” when a reporter told Sylvia this and tried to ask if Gormly’s concerns were an issue of firefighting staffing, town infrastructure or both, Sylvia cut off the question and said “I don’t want to get into that right now.”
"[T]hose matters will be addressed in the upcoming budget cycle and ongoing negotiations with the Union," Brown said in an email when asked the same question.
Town Council Vice President Paul Rodrigues said in a phone conversation with The Daily News on Tuesday he's spoken to Gormly about her concerns. "When you purchase property you know that there's no water on the east side," he told a reporter. He said the council is always concerned about the safety of citizens, and council members will continue to work to improve it.
On Tuesday, Sylvia emailed a lengthy statement to The Daily News, in which he touched on the staffing issue that’s been a sticking point in current contract arbitration hearings between the firefighters union and the town.
“Our Firefighters union president is requesting a 25% increase in personnel, which he says is necessary for them to adequately and safely perform their duties. He along with the Rhode Island State Association of [Fire Fighters] President Joseph Andriole [have] grossly misrepresented facts, have used scare tactics, and have created panic within our community…They have accused the Town Council of not caring about them or the residents of our Town, which is simply not the truth," Sylvia said in his statement.
“We will also explore ways to enhance the availability of our trained firefighters to respond to fire calls...I believe that privatizing at least one rescue to complement our existing fire rescue service, would make our firefighters available to fight fires and save tax-payers hundreds of thousands of dollars, in man-power and equipment costs annually. Additionally if our emergency medical personnel are going to be routinely requested for non-emergencies by our nursing homes, then we should explore ways to seek annual subsidies from them to assist in funding our firefighter budget.”
“To our residents,” Sylvia continued: “our town is as safe as any town can be, without putting a firefighter and a police officer on every corner.”
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