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Fire chiefs request money  to study regional fire service

  • Recorder/ Peter MacDonald Greenfield fire chief Michael Winn with a fire truck he is also president of the area fire chief organization

    Recorder/ Peter MacDonald Greenfield fire chief Michael Winn with a fire truck he is also president of the area fire chief organization

  • Recorder/ Peter MacDonald Greenfield fire chief Michael Winn with a fire truck he is also president of the area fire chief organization

Franklin County fire chiefs have raised the possibility of creating a regional fire service, asking area towns to help secure state money for a regionalization study.

“The time is upon us to talk honestly and frankly about regionalization of the fire service in Franklin County,” reads a letter to the towns from the Franklin County Fire Chiefs Association, signed by the association president, Greenfield Fire Chief Michael Winn.

“The Franklin County Fire Chiefs Association recognizes that the current method of each individual community and district attempting to fund and staff a fire department capable of meeting all local, state and national standards is becoming increasingly more challenging,” reads the letter.

The letter requests support for a study that would “provide a review of the current fire and emergency response system and look at various scenarios for revising, improving and modernizing these efforts.”

The request is the result of a vote at the association’s monthly meeting.

Turners Falls Fire Chief Robert Escott Jr. said roughly 26 association members representing 21 towns were present at the meeting Jan. 22 and he heard no dissenting votes. Most of the county’s fired departments are volunteer-run, although some of the larger communities, like Greenfield, Orange and Turners Falls, have full-time departments with on-call backup.

Escott said he believes the topic had been at the back of everyone’s mind for some time, but he only recently found out the money for a study might be available, leading to the request.

The available funding is money given to the COG annually by the state for regional planning projects.

The letter appeared on the table at Wednesday’s meeting of the Gill Selectboard, where members expressed surprise at the source of the request and approval for the concept but opted not to make a decision before speaking with the fire department.

Escott and Winn described the issue as one of personnel.

Escott said he is having difficulty bringing his department’s call force, which supports the eight full-time firefighters, up from 22 to 30, and the call firefighters he has cannot always be available at a moment’s notice.

Escott said he can’t speak for everyone, but believes other departments are in the same situation.

“The ability to give up time to something like this isn’t there for a lot of people,” Escott said.

The town of Shutesbury’s website prominently displays a request for help from Fire Chief Walter R. Tibbetts, asking for applicants to swell the numbers of a shrinking department.

The statement faults changing demographics, work, family and other responsibilities for a drastic reduction in the number of people applying.

“At the same time, state and federal mandates, training requirements, increase in incident volume, as well as the previously mentioned reasons, are putting more pressure on those that are here presently doing the job. The big problem is that there are not enough of us,” reads the plea.

If the COG decides to fund the study, Escott said the towns would not be obliged to follow any resulting recommendations.

Winn and Escott said it is too early to say what regionalization might look like, whether countywide or in smaller town clusters.

Escott said a study might recommend a reduction in the number of stations or fire engines, but jobs would not likely be on the block.

“The manpower is the issue, so I don’t see a study saying ‘You have too many firefighters,’” Escott said.

With the study as yet hypothetical, Winn said it is also possible the recommendation would be for more stations to better accommodate the topography and population distribution of the county.

Fire prevention could also be addressed.

Winn said new fire laws and codes are developed each year, with the responsibility for enforcement falling to the local departments, and handling code enforcement at the county level might be a solution.

COG Director of Community Services Phoebe Walker said she has so far received two letters supporting the concept, from Leverett and Sunderland.

Gill’s letter lists the fire regionalization project as “to-be-determined.”

Walker said the decision about which projects are undertaken comes down to the need, the number of towns that stand to benefit, whether anyone is available — either in-house or contracted out — to do the work and whether it can be completed in time for the December spending deadline.

“My guess is we’ll do something about it,” Walker said.

Walker said she has so far also heard from Deerfield, Colrain, Hawley, Northfield, Bernardston, Buckland and Conway, who have not included fire regionalization in their requests.

What a study might look like remains to be determined. Walker said she is hoping for a more concrete idea of what the fire chiefs are looking for.

Funding requests are due today but Walker said she will continue to accept letters into next week.

Escott and Winn said the association letters were sent out to all county fire chiefs, to be sent on to their various selectboards, fire district prudential committees or other governing bodies.

The request is on the agenda for the Montague Board of Selectmen’s meeting Monday.

You can reach Chris Curtis at:
ccurtis@recorder.com
or 413-772-0261, ext. 257

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