Athol Fire Chief continues pitch for override

By GREG VINE

For the Athol Daily News

Published: 04-13-2023 4:38 PM

ATHOL – Two weeks ago, Athol Fire Chief Joseph Guarnera met with the Capital Program Committee seeking support for an $895,000 Proposition 2 ½ override to fund the hiring of eight new firefighters.

On Tuesday, the chief delivered the same message to the Finance and Warrant Advisory Committee, warning that the current staffing shortage in his department is putting both firefighters and citizens at risk. The department only has four firefighters per shift, compared to five 25 years ago.

The FWAC will vote on whether or not to recommend passage of the override at an upcoming meeting.

Athol firefighters, he explained, are working an unacceptable number of overtime hours, an estimate of 58 per week. In addition, an increase in the number of calls to the department often leaves the Uptown fire station unmanned, necessitating a request for mutual aid.

“And they get here as quick as they can,” said Guarnera. “Sometimes five, 10, 12 minutes. But a building fire doubles every minute. So, a lot of times, there’s either nobody (at the station), or maybe just two people.”

Guarnera explained that he had tried several times to secure grant monies to help fund the additional hires.

“A lot of people ask, ‘Why don’t you get a grant, why don’t you get a grant, why don’t you get a grant?’ I tried three years in a row to get a grant,” he said.

Since arriving in Athol, Guarnera has looked at every department staffing study done in recent decades. He noted that one study, completed 10 years ago, “showed you were drastically undermanned.” According to the chief, the situation today is even worse due to increased calls, a growing population—particularly among senior citizens—and more pressure on firefighters to pull double shifts and work more overtime.

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“The firefighters you have are great,” he said. “They come in, but it doesn’t help morale when they’re there for 70 hours (a week) and they’re away from their families. And they’re getting tired of it – it just doesn’t help. God forbid we lose somebody because we need the extra people and we don’t have them.

“There’s a price. Is a life worth that $895,000 a year? Well, I think so. I’m very passionate about this.”

Because the chief had indicated a large number of emergency calls come from Athol’s older residents, Selectboard member Rebecca Bialecki, who is the executive director of the Franklin-Hampshire Workforce Development Board said that Athol and Orange combined have a 20 percent higher rate of seniors than the rest of Franklin and Worcester counties.

Committee Chair Ken Duffy explained how the override will be handled at the annual Town Meeting in June. Following the article on the town’s operational budget, there would be another for the override. Even if that article is approved, a secondary vote at a Special Town Election would be needed.

Figures supplied by Guarnera indicate taxes on the average single-family home in Athol would increase approximately $192 a year if the override is approved.

Committee member Sally Dodge asked what impact the addition of eight firefighters would have on overtime.

“I don’t have the exact numbers, but I will tell you that it will go down,” said Guarnera. “There’s always going to be overtime because of vacation, sick time, and everything else out there. But it will decrease.”

Dodge also wondered if the firefighters working overtime would be upset if those were cut, thus decreasing their income.

“The answer is ‘no’ because they’re pushing it,” said Guarnera emphatically. “They’ve had it up to here because they’re working so many hours. They are really pushing this; they are so behind (the override). They want to see more people.”

Greg Vine can be reached at gvineadn@gmail.com.

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