By John Anderson
Much has changed in our world over the last 20 years and the Fire Service is no exception. In 1995, the Auburn Fire Rescue Department had 4 career firefighters including Chief Roger Belhumeur and 22 call firefighters. The Drury Square Headquarters was staffed Monday through Friday from 7:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. and the call firefighters and officers answered the night and weekend emergencies. Additionally, 10 WPI students from their Fire Protection Engineering program lived in the West Auburn Station, and the town’s ambulance was provided by a private company that staffed a single basic life support ambulance at Fire Headquarters.
As 2016 gets underway, things look a lot different. Chief Stephen M. Coleman, Jr. leads the Auburn Fire Rescue Department which currently has 31 career firefighters, including the Chief, and 11 call firefighters. In addition to firefighting, the department now operates two Paramedic level ambulances, and both stations are staffed 24/7. The WPI program declined in the early 2000’s and is non-existent today.
The workload has changed a lot as well. In 1995, the Auburn Fire Rescue Department responded to 524 emergency calls, and in the 1996 Annual Town Report, Chief Belhumeur wrote that it had been the busiest year in department history with 706 calls for service. 604 were for Emergency Medical Service, and 102 were fire related calls with no EMS component.
Recently, Chief Coleman had the opportunity to say the same thing Chief Belhumeur did 19 years ago. In the 2015 Annual Town Report that will be released in May at the Town Meeting, Chief Coleman states, “at the conclusion of 2015 we recorded the busiest year in the department’s 94 year history with 3,469 emergency calls. This represents over a 400% increase in our calls for service compared to 20 years ago in 1995.” Today, the department handles over 2,000 EMS calls and over 1,000 fire calls a year with no EMS component.
In addition to firefighting and EMS, the department is the first line of defense in handling hazardous materials incidents including threats of terrorism and bomb threats. The town’s municipal
water system relies entirely on ground water from a series of wells, and a well contaminated by a hazardous materials release is a very big deal for the community and one that is not taken lightly. The Fire Rescue Department has been credited by the Auburn Water District for mitigating several large scale spills on I-290 and the Massachusetts Turnpike that would have had a major impact on the water district’s operation.
Additionally, the department participates in a regional technical rescue team that includes response to underwater rescue and recovery missions, trench and structural collapses as well as confined space and high angle rescues.
Locally, the department provides public education, fire prevention, community risk assessment, communicating via social media, and permitting for construction, alarm systems and hazardous materials. All this occurs in an environment that demands continuous training and certifications.
2015’s 3,469 emergency calls were 296 more than the previous year. The call volume increased by 9% from 2012 to 2014, and has increased by 15% from 2012 to 2015. Responses in recent years were: 2012 – 2,923; 2013 – 3,106; and 2014 – 3,173.
When Auburn firefighters are committed to an emergency, there is a second call 26% of the time. This can result in frequent mutual aid responses from other agencies such as Oxford Fire/EMS and Worcester EMS. In 2014 there were 777 simultaneous calls, and in 2015 the number increased to 912.
Outside of the City of Worcester, the Auburn Fire Rescue Department is the busiest department in Fire District 7, which is comprised of 25 cities, and towns in southern Worcester County. Auburn ranks the 6th busiest out of the 60 cities and towns in all of Worcester County. The only departments busier are the 4 cities in the county – Worcester, Fitchburg, Leominster and Gardner – and the Town of Shrewsbury.
Making this all work is a combination of many factors, but the department’s management team is a huge part of it. At 4:00 p.m. today, 2 new career firefighters and 3 officers will be sworn in.
Next week Auburn Mass Daily will examine how the Auburn Fire Rescue Department got to this point in history.