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Fire departments can exchange personnel if needed during pandemic

  • The Orange Fire Department christens its new Engine 2 in July 2019. Orange is one of 11 fire departments that has entered into an agreement that allows them to exchange personnel in the event of staffing shortfalls during the COVID-19 state of emergency. STAFF File PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

  • Athol Fire Chief Joseph Guarnera outside the Fire Station. For the Recorder/Greg Vine

  • Athol Fire Chief Joseph Guarnera outside the Fire Station. For the Recorder/Greg Vine

Staff Writer
Published: 6/4/2020 6:24:30 PM

The firefighting profession is centered on preparedness and teamwork. But it, like many other professions, has been left in a pit of uncertainty due to the global COVID-19 pandemic.

With this in mind, the fire departments in 11 Franklin and Worcester county towns have entered into an agreement they hope to never use — one that allows them to exchange personnel in the event of staffing shortfalls during the COVID-19 state of emergency. The departments of Athol, Orange, Wendell, New Salem, Erving, Barre, Gardner, Petersham, Phillipston, Royalston and Templeton will share manpower if necessary to fill any gaps if the virus takes anyone out of commission.

Athol Fire Chief Joseph Guarnera said he and Joseph Cuneo, the chief of the Wendell and New Salem fire departments, began discussing the idea of an emergency manpower agreement and the 11 departments signed on about a month ago once the language was drafted. Guarnera and Cuneo said they are not aware of any case in which a department invoked the agreement. Cuneo referred to the agreement as a type of contingency plan.

According to a joint statement from the 11 departments, the agreement’s provisions will be activated only if an individual community is unable to meet its operational requirements with its own personnel. The agreement can be revisited for similar events in the future.

“Guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) requires that persons suspected of possibly contracting COVID-19 be quarantined for 14 days, the maximum incubation period for COVID-19,” the statement reads. “If the exposed individual does not develop symptoms, they can return to work after 14 days. This loss of time can place extreme stress on fire departments if many firefighters are in quarantine simultaneously. If too many firefighters are absent due to quarantine, the delivery of emergency services in the community can quickly begin to suffer.”

Orange Fire Chief James Young said he is happy he has not had to invoke the agreement, but he is relieved it exists as a backup plan.

“Everybody worked really well together,” he said of the chiefs drafting the agreement. “There was great discussion. People had great input. It’s comforting for all us to know this agreement is in place.”

Erving Fire Chief Philip Wonkka agreed, saying it is reassuring to know departments won’t be depleted in COVID-19 rips through them and leaves them with unmanageable numbers.

“Out here in western Mass., with smaller budgets and smaller departments, we definitely need to help each other out,” he said.

Reach Domenic Poli at: dpoli@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 262.




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