A higher call volume is straining the Smithfield Fire Department, its chief says.
“It gets to a point in time where there are going to be calls that go unanswered,” said Blanton, who has been chief since the retirement last year of Patrick Harris.
In 2006, the fire department responded to 1,238 calls, including 300 emergency medical calls. That year, the department had 18 full-time employees, including 12 firefighters.
“We were able to handle that then,” Blanton said of the call volume a decade ago. “But since then, we’ve reduced staffing.”
The department now has 14 full-time employees, one part-timer and a thinning roster of volunteers, Blanton said. Call volume, meanwhile, has surpassed 2,000 a year, including more EMS calls, he said.
Paid staffing shrunk during the recession.
“It was necessary thing,” Blanton said of the staffing cuts. “But understand, the call volume didn’t change.”
“It’s a challenge every day to make sure we get the calls answered,” he added.
Blanton is especially worried about covering the town during the day, when Smithfield, the county seat, “explodes with people.”
“You have I-95 travelers; the motels are packed,” he said.
“Every year we see an increase in fire calls, emergency responses,” Blanton said. “That’s what drives our need for more staffing.”
When too many calls come in at once, Smithfield calls on neighbors like Selma and Wilson’s Mills for help. But “they’re in the same situation” with higher call volumes and smaller staffs, Blanton said.
“It’s a national problem that we all face,” he said.
Blanton would like to be able to hire an additional engine company – 12-15 more firefighters, or four to five firefighters per eight-hour shift.
In 2005 – 11 years ago now – the N.C. Department of Insurance noted that Smithfield had “an immediate need for three full-time engine companies,” Blanton said. It has one.
Additional engine companies would reduce response time and potentially lower property-insurance premiums, Blanton said.
Earlier this year, Blanton asked the Smithfield Town Council to seek a grant that would pay the salaries of an additional engine company for two years. After that, taxpayers would have to pick up the tab.
The council has not acted on Blanton’s request, but the fire chief says he plans to bring his department’s needs to the council during its budget talks.
His staffing problem isn’t a new one, he said.
“The former chief had the same conversation,” he said. “This has been going on for years. ... Truly this is a need, not a want.”
Blanton pointed to his department’s missions statement: “We’re committed to protecting life, property and the environment. We will be responsive to the needs of our residents, providing rapid, professional emergency service essential to the health, safety and well being of the community. We will accomplish our mission through prevention education, fire suppression, medical services, hazard mitigation and other related activities.”
“We’re not able to do the proper prevention education and hazard-mitigation services we used to do,” Blanton said. “And it’s because of staffing. We can’t provide those services.”
Abbie Bennett: 919-553-7234, Ext. 101; @AbbieRBennett