The challenges currently faced by the Fall River Fire Department are not entirely unique to the city.
“I believe all urban Gateway Cities have struggled since the meltdown of 2009,” New Bedford Fire Chief Michael Gomes said in a recent email.
“The loss of large amounts of state aid to cities and towns has had a significant impact on fire protection in Gateway Cities,” Gomes said, explaining that “lack of funding has resulted in deferred purchases of vehicles, equipment and public safety building replacement.”
Not too dissimilar to the decline in fire department staffing Fall River experienced several years ago, Gomes described his city’s fire department hitting lows in staffing levels — 191 firefighters in 2010 — to a high of 236 firefighters. Today, he said, the department has a fire fighting force of 219.
New Bedford has seven fire engines and three ladder trucks spread through seven fire stations. Each apparatus is manned by four firefighters, the minimum level as recommended by the National Fire Protection Association.
Gomes said that due to reductions in personnel the New Bedford Fire Department is now “browning out” — or taking out of service temporarily — one company per day shift. And overtime costs have gone up.
The fire stations average 102 years old and “are generally in poor condition — the newest was constructed in 1956,” according to Gomes. “Maintenance on these has been very limited and most do not meet the needs of a 21st century city,” he said.
As far as the vehicles are concerned, the New Bedford Fire Department had gone seven years between purchases, Gomes said. But three years ago, the city developed — and in 2013 adopted — a capital plan that “through annual purchases would turn over the 10 vehicle fleet every 15 years,” Gomes explained. So he is hoping his department has turned the corner.
“In New Bedford we were in trouble but we are making good progress in the last three years,” Gomes said. “Our buildings and maintaining staffing levels are our biggest challenge going forward.”
So far the city has purchased two engines and currently has a ladder truck under construction. The city also plans to order another engine in September 2016.
Gomes said New Bedford has been able to purchase new equipment through fire act grants, including respirators, turnout gear, radios, thermal cameras, hose and appliances and cardiac defibrillators.
“Without these grants we would be struggling to meet our needs,” Gomes said.
Across the Taunton River, Somerset Fire Chief Scott Jepson described a fire department that’s in a stable situation, with a new pumper on order and other vehicles in good shape.
Jepson said his department has consistently been called upon two to three times a month to provide mutual aid to Fall River — “that is fairly unusual and has only occurred in the past few years since their staffing has been cut. There are always instances when we would go over there regardless of the manpower status just because of the size of the fire or other circumstances.”
The standards that local fire departments use when determining how many firefighters are assigned to a fire engine or in assessing the usable life of firefighters’ personal safety equipment, is developed by the National Fire Protection Agency, based in Quincy.
Kenneth Willette, former fire chief of the Wellesley Fire Department and now manager of the NFPA’s Public Fire Protection division, said the agency makes specific recommendations in terms of staffing and fire response time. When it comes to recommendations on replacing fire apparatuses and personal safety equipment those guidelines are a little more general.
The other recommendation is “it should take no more than four minutes of travel time to reach a scene [of a fire],” Willette said.
Willette said that the organization recommends a fire apparatus after at least 15 to 20 years of service life “be placed on reserve.” However, some departments see more heavy usage of those apparatuses and may need to transition them earlier.
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