Athol meeting to address override concerns


For the Athol Daily News

Published: 07-12-2023 4:11 PM

ATHOL—An upcoming meeting held by Fire Chief Joseph Guarnera and Town Manager Shaun Suhoski will provide a forum for residents to air their concerns over a proposed $895,000 override of Proposition 2 ½.

The meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, July 18, at 5:30 p.m. in Liberty Hall at Town Hall. The override passed at the recent Annual Town Meeting and will be decided on at a Special Election on July 31. The money would be used to add eight new firefighters to what the chief argues is a seriously undermanned department.

Guarnera hopes to counter disinformation he has seen on social media in recent weeks. One notion he’d like to dispel is the idea that when a call comes in for multiple apparatuses, it’s one call per vehicle.

“Well, that’s incorrect,” the chief said. “One incident – it doesn’t matter how many apparatus go – is just one call. So, if two pumpers and a truck and an ambulance go, that’s not four incidents, that’s one incident.”

Guarnera also wants to respond to accusations that he is “padding the numbers” regarding the calls the department responds to. He said each call that comes in through dispatch is automatically recorded, including the reason for it. He added that the call records go to the Mass Department of Fire Services and federal offices.

“So even if I wanted to pad numbers, I couldn’t,” Guarnera stressed, “and I would never pad numbers anyway. That’s not how it works. We have the obligation to give the state and the federal government our call volume, and our call volume is backed-up fact – where we’ve gone, what we did and how we did it.”

The chief said he’s been personally asked why Athol’s ambulance responds to calls outside of the town, that the department shouldn’t be sending it to neighboring communities. The chief said CMR 170.355 requires this, and the same is done by neighboring towns when Athol is in need.

According to the state website, Section A of that regulation reads: “No service, or agent thereof including, but not limited to, its EMS personnel, shall refuse in the case of an emergency to dispatch an available EMS vehicle and to provide emergency response, assessment and treatment, within the service’s regular operating area, in accordance with the Statewide Treatment Protocols, at the scene or during transport, or to transport a patient to an appropriate health care facility in accordance with the applicable service zone plan.”

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Guarnera said Athol’s operating area, as delineated by the state, includes Barre, Phillipston, Royalston, Orange, New Salem, Wendell, Warwick, Erving and Petersham.

“So, if any of those towns call for an ambulance,” he explained, “if we have one available, which means it’s not on a call, we are obligated by the state – by Mass Code of Regulations – to send it. On the other hand, the towns in our service area are obligated to send something to us if they have it.”

One comment Guarnera saw online, he said, “hit me sideways.” The chief said the post read, “Boy it’s nice that each member of the fire department is going to be making $110,000 a year if we’re giving them $895,000 divided by eight.”

Guarnera said only 75 percent of the department budget goes to salaries. That would mean a firefighter’s salary is $85,000, which includes the cost of benefits. Other costs include training and equipment.

“So anybody who things everybody is getting $110,000 is absolutely wrong,” said the chief.

There would be a modest decrease in overtime expenses if two firefighters are added to the four that currently staff each shift, the chief said. He reiterated that, statewide, the average number of firefighters on shift is eight.

“We do over 4,000 calls a year with four people,” he said. “Even by asking for six people per shift, that still puts us way below the state average.”

The chief encouraged anyone with questions about the override to attend Tuesday’s meeting.

“I have no problem answering questions,” said the chief. “I realize this is a big thing and it’s a very important thing, and if people have a question I want them to get the right answer.”

Polls for the July 31 election will be open from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. at Athol Town Hall. Anyone wishing to vote by mail must have their application returned to the town clerk’s office no later than 5 p.m. on Monday, July 24. Applications may be picked up at the town clerk’s office or by going to

Greg Vine can be reached at