Report: Understaffing At NFD "Going To Kill Firefighters"

David Creed •

Aftermath Fire Photo
A consultant expressed his concerns for the health and well-being of Nantucket firefighters in a 76-page Firefighter Cancer Action Plan Report. Photo by David Creed

The Nantucket's firefighters need more help or else their lives may be on the line. That was among the takeaways that consultant Jim Burneka Jr., of the Firefighter Cancer Consultants, had following a five-day retreat out to the island from July 31 through August 4. He is concerned about the lack of manpower that is forcing firefighters into situations that wouldn’t arise on the mainland where additional manpower is much more readily available.

“It is clear that the Nantucket Fire Department is sincere about improving the health and well-being of their members regarding firefighter cancer,” the report says. “However, it is important to note that due to the lack of manpower and resources, it will not be feasible to implement many of the recommendations within this report. Members of the Nantucket Fire Department are being forced to choose between reducing their carcinogenic exposures, or the potential of suffering a cardiac event. In order to avoid compromise, manpower needs to significantly increase. The grave reality is that the current levels of manpower are going to kill firefighters; if not sooner than later.”

Burneka documented his findings in a 76-page Firefighter Cancer Action Plan Report. The department scored 136 points out of a possible 200 points. It was graded in 40 different areas within seven different categories.

“I've never had to write that last sentence before in any other report,” Burneka said. “And quite simply, it could probably be just because I've never worked on an island before. And with that, there's special circumstances involved. But it still doesn't change the fact that what you ask of your firefighters is too much and it's going to end up costing their lives.”

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“It certainly scored on the lower end of departments I am used to,” he added. “A lot of that is there is lack of resources. A lot of it too is really simple things they could have installed the week I was there. This has clearly been a problem for a long time and they’ve really well despite all of these things. It is either a lot of luck or those firefighters are really good. I think it is a combination of both. But they don’t have enough manpower to be prepared for an event where there are multiple large fires.”

Burneka said what he meant by the last line of the report - the one about current manpower levels are going to kill firefighters - is that when it comes to fighting a fire strategically, the department can’t do the job safely and is forced into more risks while combating a blaze.

“You need to have people there to make sure you can do the job safely,” he said. “But then on top of that all the cancer and cardiac issues, all the initiatives that go into it. Whether they kill a firefighter line of duty, whether they kill a firefighter by a cardiac issue, or decades later a firefighter has cancer, it's still killing a firefighter unnecessarily. It's just so unnecessary. It doesn't need to happen. But in order to prevent this stuff, you need more of them.”

Nantucket Fire Fighters Local 2509 union president Scott Holmes did not have any comment on the report and said the union would let the report speak for itself.

NFD fire chief Michael Cranson, who took over as chief in October of 2022, posted a response to this report on the Town's website, where he outlines several investments the Town is making to ensure firefighter safety and address the staff shortage.

"Public safety is of paramount importance to Town and Fire Department leadership, and there is an unwavering commitment to meet the staffing needs of the Nantucket Fire Department," the Town said in the statement.

Some of the statistics and facts referenced include:

- The hiring of 10 new NFD personnel since January 2023

- Active recruiting of firefighters both on and off-island

- Completion of a successful collective bargaining agreement with the Nantucket Fire Department union, with a focus on providing competitive compensation for employee retention and new hires

- Development of innovative programs to provide attainable housing options for municipal employees

- Expanded efforts to strengthen the island’s call firefighting force to assist the department as necessary

The release also pointed out that the Town of Nantucket has invested nearly $30 million in people, equipment and facilities for the Nantucket Fire Department since 2018. These expenditures include $18.7 million for their new state-of-the-art 22,000-square-foot fire station on Fairgrounds Road with apparatus bays, dispatch and communications, offices and dormitory space for on-call firefighters

The Town has also spent $10.5 million for new emergency vehicles, rescue and advanced lifesaving equipment and training.

There has also been $162,000 spent for lower PFAS turn-out gear.

Other issues highlighted by Burneka included the department's lack of a health and safety officer and a health and safety committee. It also included a 1 out of 5 score for rehab while citing that a rehabilitation process for firefighters following emergency calls and incidents is generally not conducted due to the lack of manpower the island’s department faces. This lack of manpower also shows up in the station fill-ins category, in which the NFD also received a score of 1 out of 5. Burneka noted that all on- and off-duty firefighters are called to a fire scene, which leaves the department vulnerable.

“More personnel would allow the department to function at more than one large scene at a time,” the report’s recommendation for addressing this issue, said. “More personnel will be a large expense. However, this department currently doesn’t have enough manpower to handle one significant incident safely and effectively, let alone multiple incidents at a time.”

“My goal is to come in and see where that department is at and then compare it to the best practices,” Burneka said. “Based off of standards and based off of science, I'm not making any of this stuff up. When I see all this stuff, and I see what they're lacking, I just have concern for those firefighters and for their short and long-term health and wellness.”

Within the wellness category, annual medical exams received a 1/5 because there are currently no department-led annual physicals. The recommendation was that the department should implement annual NFPA 1582 firefighter medical physicals for all members because early detection to cancer is paramount. These exams, the report says, are anywhere between $500-$750.

“You've already had a firefighter who had a heart attack and you've already had a firefighter who's had cancer,” Burneka said. “They're not doing anything to actually catch the stuff early on. They're behind when it comes to preventing this stuff and all these different exposures, but then also watching over their firefighters and making sure that nothing happens to them. If you can catch cancer early on, the firefighter can still finish their career. But the longer that goes on, now you're talking chemotherapy, now you're talking radiation, now you're talking about them fighting for their lives. When you have an annual physical, chances are you'll hopefully catch that cancer earlier stage, and they haven't done that.”

Other wellness issues included skin protection scoring a 1/5 because there is no sunscreen available on site. There was also a recommendation that the NFD begin working to create a policy to cover the PWFA (Pregnancy Workers Act), which just went into effect on June 27.

Lastly, the NFD received a 1/5 in exposure reporting.

The department also scored numerous 5/5 marks. They earned a 5/5 for firefighter cancer training. Their new gym in the facility also earned them a 5/5 for the exercise category.

The NFD also earned 5/5’s for risk management, SCBA for car fires, fire apparatus/equipment, Sauna, uniform washing station, cleaning gear, backup set of gear, fire gear being out of living quarters, exhaust systems, compartment over exhaust, separation of the bay & living quarters, ice machines, drinking fountains, skin exams.

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