Rising housing costs on Cape Cod are making it impossible for many firefighters to live in the towns they cover, prompting some communities to drop or loosen their residency requirements and some emergency personnel to move back across the bridge to the mainland.
This means towns like Wellfleet, where two ambulance calls can deplete daily staffing, can be left vulnerable, relying on off-duty firefighters who live hours away if they need backup.
“I’ve got a fairly young force, which has a lot of energy and a lot of commitment,” said Wellfleet Fire Chief Rich Pauley. “But to be able to staff some of these calls is very, very challenging.”
Wellfleet has emergency recalls almost every day, but the town seldom convinces off-duty firefighters or paramedics to come back because they are so far off the Cape, said Pauley.
Compounding the challenge for Cape fire departments is the growing population — Barnstable County added nearly 20,000 residents, an 8.3 percent increase, from 2017 to 2021, according to census data — which means small departments are straining their firefighters as they deal with more calls per shift.
In the same period, the number of calls for fires increased by 16 percent, according to the Department of Fire Services, while nonfire emergencies grew 24 percent to nearly 70,000 per year.
Peter Burke, the Hyannis fire chief and president of the Fire Chiefs Association of Massachusetts, said he hears about similar staffing struggles from colleagues in other parts of Massachusetts where the cost of housing is high. But elsewhere in the state, he said, there tend to be other affordable towns nearby where firefighters can live, unlike the Cape.
According to John Burke, (no relation to Peter Burke), the Sandwich fire chief and president of the Barnstable County Fire Chiefs Association, the average starting salary for a firefighter on the Cape is between $55,000 and $75,000 — a far cry from the $210,000 yearly salary a family would need to afford a typical house.
In response, many departments have loosened or stripped their residency requirements for firefighters. But if a big storm is coming, Peter Burke said, communities don’t want to rely on personnel who live far away — sometimes even in other states.
With less local backup, he said, towns must hire more firefighters to cover gaps, which can lead to higher property taxes and, in turn, even higher housing costs.
“It’s one of those wicked problems,” Peter Burke said. “And there isn’t clear, easily defined solutions.”
It’s a puzzle trying to balance the level of service, financials, and available resources, said David LeBlanc, the Harwich fire chief. The department can’t always staff for the worst day — that would be prohibitively expensive — but it needs enough people to complete the mission.
“The second person calling 911 should get the same level of services as the first person,” said LeBlanc. “There shouldn’t be, ‘Oh well, you called the second; you only get two people. That’s all we have left.’ That’s not your fault that you were the second phone call.”
The Falmouth Fire Department also has more firefighters living over the bridge than in the community, changing the workforce dynamic and adding to turnover.
“If you’re driving, say, 60 miles every single day, and you’re driving through a community offering the same job, and it’s only a 20-mile commute, we might lose somebody,” said Timothy Smith, the Falmouth chief. “Because eventually, they’re going to get tired of driving.”
Robert Moran, the Brewster chief, said the hiring and training process also eats away at the budget.
A new hire has to go to an academy in Stow, Springfield, or Bridgewater, with the department footing the bill for housing, transportation, and food. Sending someone to the 10-week program might cost $25,000.
Meanwhile, fewer people are applying for the jobs, said Justin Tavano, the Chatham chief. About a decade ago, his department received 80 to 100 applicants per job. Now, they get 10 to 20, many of whom don’t even meet the minimum requirements. Good candidates turn down offers, too, worried about the cost of housing.
“It’s a constant struggle,” said Tavano.
The problem is amplified on the islands.
“When there’s an emergency and we need to recall people, then it becomes a challenge,” said Nantucket Fire Chief Michael Cranson. “Because physically [the firefighters are] not here. We’re 30 miles out to sea.”
Cranson said three of his 28 firefighters commute by ferry to work 24-hour shifts.
And during an emergency, the department elicits help from other people on the island, including volunteer call firefighters, the airport fire department, the Hyannis Fire Department, which can travel by boat, and the United States Coast Guard, which can fly.
“Certainly, it’s a challenge,” said Cranson. “It’s a challenge because of where we are. But it’s also a challenge because nobody can afford to be a firefighter and buy a house here.”
A similar problem occurs in Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard, which has an all-volunteer fire department except for EMS. Out of seven full-time EMS personnel, two commute by ferry, as do some part-time staff.
Oak Bluffs Fire Chief Nelson Wirtz predicted the volunteer firefighters, who make up the backbone of the services on the island, will eventually be priced out too.
“I have generations of people in this department,” said Wirtz. “Their fathers, their grandfathers, their great-grandfathers were volunteers in this department. It is an absolutely amazing place to work with the history involved here and the history of volunteerism.”
Right now, the chief and his deputy are the only people who respond to fire calls during the day. If there is a fire, volunteers leave their jobs as business owners, auto mechanics, truck drivers, and boat captains to go to the station and get fire trucks.
“But the first people in on the scene is just me and my car,” said Wirtz. “I can’t do a whole lot with that.”