Inside Town Government

The Smithfield Fire Department

By Ron Scopelliti

This is the third in a series of articles describing the inner workings of the town of Smithfield’s various offices and departments.

Listening to Smithfield Fire Chief Robert Seltzer describe his department’s responsibilities, a phrase made famous as a Facebook relationship status comes to mind: It’s complicated.

Smithfield has close to 27 square miles of land, populated by 21,000-plus residents. Thousands of cars and trucks pass through the town each day. And protecting it all are 58 men and women operating out of three fire stations that are spread throughout the southern portion of town.

The nerve center of the department is their familiar Putnam Pike headquarters building, constructed in 1939. In addition to the offices of the chief and deputy chief, the building has one full-time fire engine and one full-time rescue.

The Farnum Pike Station, also built in 1939, has a full-time fire engine and a part-time rescue that’s on duty Tuesday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.

The Log Road Station, built in the 1960s has a rescue with two members who cross-staff the ladder truck.

Chief Seltzer said that last year the department made 4,600 runs. And despite the name “Fire Department,” 73 to 75 percent of their calls are for medical emergencies.

“That number is pretty much a national average,” Seltzer said of the percentage. Because of the predominance of medical calls, all firefighters and rescue personnel have to be certified at the EMT-Cardiac level, or the higher EMT-Paramedic level.

“A paramedic,” he explained, “is the highest level of pre-hospital care provider, from an advanced life support standpoint.” The department currently has 10 certified paramedics, and three more in training.

The need to provide both fire and emergency medical services (EMS) with a limited staff means that all of Smithfield’s firefighters are rescue workers, and all of their rescue workers are firefighters. Seltzer himself is an EMT-Cardiac.

“We’re all doing dual roles,” he said.

“If we have a house fire, their [EMS personnel] initial job is to treat anybody that’s injured. But after that, they’re fighting the fire like everybody else.”

This dual duty answers the often-asked question of why fire trucks are seen responding to medical emergencies alongside rescue vehicles.

The chief explained that there are only two people on a rescue, and they’re called upon to perform a wide variety of life-saving tasks, including starting IVs, hooking up EKGs, administering medication, and performing CPR. They also have to be obtaining medical information, communicating with the hospital, helping the patient’s family, carrying equipment, and looking after their own safety.

“You can’t do that with two people,” the chief said. “If it’s a bad medical call or a bad trauma call, we’ll, at minimum, need three people on the rescue – two with the patient and one to drive.”

Asked why the fire truck itself has to be on scene, he explained: “While they’re at that call, there could be a car accident; there could be a car fire; there could be a house fire.”

Having the fire truck and crew together, allows the crew to leave directly from the EMS call if they’ve completed all their duties at that scene. If, on the other hand, they’d gone to the EMS call in a pickup truck, they’d have to go back to the station to get the fire truck, before responding to another call.

“That could add ten minutes,” Seltzer said.

Time, he explained is a key element in all the department’s operations: “We typically have an average response time of four to six minutes in the southern part of town.

“When we can get to somebody in a timely manner, and provide life-saving treatment, we’ve been very successful in resuscitating people in cardiac arrest.”

He noted however, the increased response time to the northern section of town, where the department has been looking to add a station since 1976.

“Once you hit the Rte. 7 and 116 area and you head north of that area, it takes us eight to twelve minutes – a very significant increase in time.”

Quick response times are also critical on fire calls, not only for saving lives but for minimizing property damage.

“We average one to two house fires a month,” Seltzer said. “That’s a lot for a community like this. I’m saying significant fires, where enough damage is done that people can’t stay in a house, it has to be repaired, etc.”

“The sooner we get there, the less damage. The less time it takes for people to get back on their feet.”

He noted that with the new overlay district in the northern part of town, a new station has become more imperative.

“You need to have the infrastructure in place,” Seltzer said. “And part of the infrastructure, just like water and sewers, is fire and EMS protection.”

A new fire a station is also a step towards the chief’s goal of raising the town’s rating with the Insurance Services Office. A new fire station, he said, will get the town the credit it needs to get to go from Class 4 to Class 3, and will help it towards Class 2.

He said the department has been working with the Financial Review Commission and the Town Manager to develop a plan for the new station, which would be funded through a $4.4 million bond request.

He’s also been working to upgrade the current stations, which have issues with ADA and fire code compliance, and have no facilities for the department’s female employees. While there are currently only two women in the department, Chief Seltzer expects more in the future, since more women are choosing careers in firefighting and emergency services

“It’s totally unacceptable for a female to work in these facilities and not even have a ladies’ room,” he said.

They plan to upgrade the stations over time using capital funds. He and the fire prevention division will oversee the projects, rather than hire a clerk of the works.

“We’re being very cognizant of where the money’s coming from,” Seltzer said. “We’re going to spread it out over time so we’re not putting a big burden on the taxpayers. But we have to get this stuff done.”

He’d also like to see the Fire Department earn accreditation from the Center for Public Safety Excellence. Accreditation, he said, brings a department to a higher level of training, and helps it keep up with the current standards.

“There’s a lot to be current on,” he said, “and I want to make sure we stay current.”