When Barnstable Police Chief Matt Sonnabend recently talked to the town council about his department’s budget, he mentioned he had eight staff vacancies.
“Hiring is a struggle right now,” he said.
And that applies pretty much everywhere on Cape Cod. Local communities are among 86% of cities and towns nationwide having trouble attracting first responders. For the Cape, the problem is tied to the high price of housing.
Truro has vacancies for three patrol officers, and a fourth patrol officer is on medical leave but is expected to return.
Bourne has been short two paramedics for almost a year, according to Bourne Fire Chief David Cody.
The Eastham Fire Department has one opening for a firefighter/paramedic, and another was just hired — but with no experience. Eastham Fire Chief Kent Farrenkopf said that’s the first time that’s happened to him.
Sandwich Police Department has two openings, and with requirements for the state civil service system and training academies, Police Chief Peter Wack doesn’t expect to have new hires on the job until fall 2022.
Throughout Cape Cod, the lack of reasonably priced housing and the high cost of living are big contributors to the problem, town officials say.
Police and fire chiefs cite multiple other factors, too, though: changes through the state police reform bill; reduced numbers in summer reserve programs that were once recruiting tools for officers; civil service system requirements; pay scales; recent police controversies nationwide; and concern about firefighting chemicals that have caused cancer.
Officials emphasize that their hard-working staffers are dedicated to keeping the towns safe — and that help when needed from other towns through mutual aid ups that safety factor — they find the vacancies and shortage of recruits troubling.
Fewer people want the jobs
Daniel Deschamps, police deputy chief in Eastham, where an officer was just hired after a lengthy process, said he’s seen a drop in applicants.
Yarmouth Police Lt. Cal Bogden said that on test day, the department used to fill school cafeterias with hundreds of recruits vying for local entry-level police jobs.
“Now, we’re lucky if we get 75,” he said. “I think there’s a whole myriad of reasons why.”
Orleans Police Chief Scott MacDonald estimates a 60-70% decrease in the number of applicants for open positions. Ten years ago, he said, he would get 70 applicants for one open position. This year, he got nine.
Bourneofficials attribute vacancies directly to the limited number of paramedics available in the civil service system, said Bourne Fire Chief David Cody.
Statewide, a test is given every two years and people can apply to be a non-EMT, EMT or a paramedic, Cody said. Only about 200 to 300 people apply to be a paramedic across the state, he said.
Another factor for firefighter jobs: “In my personal opinion it is because of the amount of cancer awareness and exposure to cancers,” Sandwich Fire Chief John Burke said. It makes people “think twice,” he said.
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The housing dilemma
The increasing expense and decreasing availability of housing is one Cape-specific problem, Bogden said. Two recent hires in Yarmouth have struggled to find a place to rent. Other local officials agree about the housing problem. Eastham’s Farrenkopf said one employee – a Cape Cod native – recently moved to Maine because the cost of living was cheaper.
Two of the Truro police officer positions have been open since last year, according to Town Manager Darrin Tangeman. “We haven’t been able to bring candidates in that could make (the housing) work,” he said.
Orleans Fire Chief Geof Deering said his department has had one position open off and on for about two years. He hopes to fill it in August after his candidate goes through all the pre-hiring exams. With hire scheduled for the training academy, he expects the soonest the candidate will be ready to join the department will be the end of the year.
Deering also points to housing and the high cost of living.Orleans firefighters have to live within seven miles of the town, and the median home cost is $839,500.
The Sandwich Fire Department recently filled one position and there will likely be another position that needs to be filled in September, according to Burke.
Last year, the department had nine vacancies because a lot of people moved onto other departments, Burke said. To fill those vacancies, the department expanded the living radius to 60 miles to try to attract candidates from off-Cape, who can’t afford living here, he said.
In Yarmouth a few employees commute from off-Cape, Fire Chief Philip Simonian said.
When Truro Fire Chief Tim Collins, the department’s first full-time chief, started work in town, he had to move 13 times in four years to satisfy his job’s residency requirement.
“The unfortunate thing is everyone knows housing is an issue,” Collins said. With “billionaires buying out millionaires,” and Airbnb vacation rentals replacing long-term rentals, the problems are not getting any better, he said.
While the town’s firefighters stay at the fire station while on duty, they have homes across the Cape, from Orleans to Sandwich, Collins said. A fire department is much more effective at its job when the crew lives nearby, he added.
A nationwide trend
Hiring challenges aren’t confined to Cape Cod, Truro Police Chief Jamie Calise said in a statement. Police officer applications “are down at an alarming rate” everywhere.
The National Police Foundation reported last year that 86% of the departments nationwide experienced a shortage. Tangeman pointed to a Police Chief Magazine article entitled “A Crisis Facing Law Enforcement: Recruiting in the 21st Century,” which described a changing society, profession and strategies within the police force.
“The lack of first responders is not unique to this area, it’s just more highlighted,” Collins said.
In addition to the difficulties of a small town, Truro police officer and police union representative Leo Rose said, it is harder being a police officer, in general, these days.
“Nobody wants to be a cop anymore, just with the climate and everything that’s going on,” Rose said. “The last year it’s certainly been harder and worse for us to get people in here because of that.”
Bogden also cited waning interest in the profession as a reason for the shrinking hiring pool.
The pay is low when compared to some other professions, so recruits need to really want the job, he said.
“Let’s face it, police work is a mentally, physically demanding job,” he said. “It’s not easy, especially with all the stuff in the national news. It’s draining, and I don’t think the younger generation really wants to deal with that. There’s plenty of other jobs out there.”
Police departments are also less tolerant of past run-ins with the law — Bogden gave an open-container citation from college as an example — causing many candidates to be instantly knocked out of contention for a job, he said.
“Especially now with the new police reform bill, you can’t have any black mark on your record,” he said. “I think that disqualifies a lot of people that maybe back a few years ago could have still got a job even if they had some sort of minor offense on their record. Police departments are just going to avoid that now.”
It’s not just first-responders
Cape towns have found the housing crisis causing problems in hiring employees for non-emergency positions, too.
In Truro, there are close to a dozen vacancies in town departments, Tangeman said recently.
Provincetown School Superintendent Suzanne Scallion commutes to the Outer Cape from the Amherst area each week, not because she favors Western Massachusetts but because she can’t find a house on Cape Cod.
While she has a place to stay on the Cape during the work week, she said in an…