Athol Fire Chief fields questions on override

By GREG VINE

For the Athol Daily News

Published: 04-19-2023 4:41 PM

ATHOL – Fire Chief Joseph Guarnera fielded several questions from the Selectboard as he continued his efforts to garner support for an $895,000 Proposition 2 ½ override to fund the hiring of eight firefighters.

The proposal will be presented as an article at the June 12 Town Meeting. As in previous presentations to the Capital Program and Finance and Warrant Advisory committees, Guarnera stressed the new hires are vital to ensure the safety of both the public and the town’s firefighters.

One statistic that stood out during the April 18 meeting was that in 2022, firefighter/EMTs had to respond to two simultaneous emergency calls more than 470 times. This required Guarnera to call three off-duty staff into the station, which otherwise would have been uncovered. In 34 instances last year, three calls came in within a short span, and the firefighters who had been called in to cover the station had to respond. This meant that no one was available at the Athol station to respond to calls that may have come in while the three crews were out.

Between July 7 and Nov. 7 of 2022, according to Guarnera, there were 59 calls where there was either no ambulance crews or firefighters to respond.

“That’s 59 times that people in this community did not have a correct response and we were getting our response from Orange, or Wood’s (Ambulance) from Gardner, or whatever it may be, but there was nobody here,” Guarnera said.

“So, what was the reason for those non-response calls?” asked board member Brian Dodge.

“Everybody was out,” Guarnera responded.

“Where were they?” Dodge persisted.

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“On calls,” the chief reiterated.

“Were they in Athol?” Dodge pressed.

“I could tell you,” said Guarnera, “but they were on calls.”

When Dodge asked how often Athol had responded to out-of-town calls, Guarnera said it’s happened multiple times. He said under state law, a department has to respond if a mutual aid request is made. Dodge brought up a hypothetical situation, asking what would happen if Orange had to reduce its fire department. Guarnera said that whichever town Orange called would be required to respond.

Picking up on Dodge’s line of questioning, board member Rebecca Bialecki interjected, “Just to correct something; the state doesn’t allow for any municipality to have no emergency response for medical. So, if Orange did decide, say, ‘We’re just going to stop running an ambulance,’ they have to, as a town, sign a contract with some provider. The state would step in if they did not do that. It doesn’t just default to the next town over. That’s not how it works.”

The staffing shortage has also resulted in a great deal of overtime spending. Guarnera explained that, due to the hazards of firefighting, the department has had to cover 79 weeks of overtime for people out due to injury. Up until three weeks ago, four personnel were out injured and one has been out over a year.

“We’ve had two people with back surgery, one with a shoulder, and one with a neck…That equates to about $168,000 in overtime we’ve had to pay to cover those shifts,” the chief said.

Guarnera added that the overtime figure provided covers the period from the start of the current fiscal year – which began July 1, 2002 – to present.

In FY21, Guarnera said, the department covered just shy of 9,500 hours in overtime costs, a figure which has ballooned to more than 13,400 hours so far this fiscal year.

A majority of the Selectboard indicated their support for the override, with others hinting they were leaning in that direction. The board will vote its recommendations on individual warrant articles—including the article calling for the override—at an upcoming meeting. If approved at Town Meeting, the override will still need the endorsement of voters in a Special Election later this year.

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

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