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Orange cuts fire dept. budget

ORANGE — Starting in July, residents may find they have to wait a little longer for an ambulance or fire truck, if they happen to call 911 when personnel are on the scene of another emergency.

At town meeting earlier this week, voters approved the Finance Committee’s recommendations to cut Fire Department wages by at least $300,000 next year, to $565,000.

Fire Chief Dennis Annear moved to increase the final budget by $50,000, but that motion failed.

Fire Captain James Young Jr. told voters he understands “if you don’t have money in the bank, you can’t spend it, but this (decision) is not about dollar amounts, it’s about service … so we are there to respond … and give you the service you deserve.”

In an interview after the meeting, Annear said he plans to cut overtime expenses to avoid layoffs that will reduce staffing below national safety standards.

“We need that level of staffing to provide the services citizens expect. When they pick up the phone and dial 911, they expect somebody to come.”

The department supports three shifts of workers, including Annear, who respond to fire and medical emergencies. Currently, Annear said there are two to three workers on every shift. When workers are out sick or take vacations, more shifts are covered by just two workers.

Annear said “for 100 days out of the year, we will be short staffed.”

With the reduction to overtime expenses, he said he will not be able to bring off-duty workers back to cover calls if the first team of two has already been called out to an emergency.

That means that someone with a house fire or needing an ambulance may need to wait an additional 15 to 30 minutes for assistance from Gardner, Athol or Greenfield.

Finance Committee Chairwoman Linda Smith said the cut is necessary because this year’s ambulance revenues of $400,000 are more than $100,000 shy of projections.

Four neighboring towns have their own fire departments, but pay to use Orange’s ambulance service. The department is unique in Franklin County in that all workers are paramedics, not just EMTs.

Finance Committee Member Bob Anderson said he wants the town to research the cost-effectiveness of offering these services as that revenue is “trending downward.”

Annear said ambulance revenue projections were not met this year for several reasons. Erving decided not to expand its use of the service for residents in the western half of that town, Athol Memorial Hospital is moving fewer patients to other facilities, and many insurance companies are reducing coverage of ambulance services.

Smith added the federal SAFER grant that supported a higher level of Fire Department staffing for the past five years, will be terminating in December.

The grant brought the department’s staffing levels up to national emergency standards. Over the grant period, the town took on increasing funding responsibility of the additional workers.

When the grant terminates in December, Smith said the town is not obligated to continue staffing at the higher level.

Annear, however, is committed to retain the permanent staff members he hired through the grant.

He told The Recorder he takes exception to Smith’s comments on the town floor that the committee-recommended cuts and raises were “fair … and across the board.”

“No definition of ‘fair’ I can find says that we take a $300,000 cut and everybody else goes up,” he said.

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