Following override defeat, committee discusses costs for new Athol firefighters

Athol Fire Chief Joseph Guarnera speaks to members of the Fire Department Staffing Advisory Committee about the need to hire additional firefighter/EMTs. The committee is trying to decide how best to fund any new positions.

Athol Fire Chief Joseph Guarnera speaks to members of the Fire Department Staffing Advisory Committee about the need to hire additional firefighter/EMTs. The committee is trying to decide how best to fund any new positions. PHOTO BY GREG VINE

By GREG VINE

For the Athol Daily News

Published: 01-04-2024 3:16 PM

ATHOL – At its meeting Wednesday afternoon, members of the Fire Department Staffing Advisory Committee agreed that the town does need more firefighter/EMTs, but costs for such hires remain a concern.

The committee was formed following the defeat of last July’s Special Election vote on a Proposition 2 ½ override which would have provided $895,000 to hire eight new firefighters. While the measure was defeated by a decisive two-to-one margin, fewer than 10 percent of Athol’s approximately 8,700 registered voters went to the polls.

Committee Chair Ken Duffy asked Fire Chief Joseph Guarnera to speak at Wednesday’s meeting on how he settled on eight as the number of new staff needed. Guarnera explained that, before seeking the eight new firefighters, he contacted departments with similar call volumes to see how many personnel they had covering each shift.

“The average,” he said, “was between eight and 11. We were running on four – obviously way below average. That’s why we have such a critical need for staffing. But I understood for me, as a department head, to ask for an additional 16 people to bring us to the lowest part of the average would be unrealistic. So, I thought adding an additional two on each shift would at least give us six people per shift. That’s still two below average, but we could make it work.”

Guarnera said the collective bargaining agreement with the Athol Firefighters Association requires that a minimum of three personnel cover the fire station at any given time.

“So if we have four people on, and two go out on the ambulance, we have to call someone in,” the chief said. “So every time you seen an ambulance or apparatus go down the street, there’s a minimum of one person being called in on a minimum of two hours of overtime. If four people go out – say two on an ambulance and two on an apparatus – three people are called in.”

Six people per shift, said the chief, would allow the dispatch of one vehicle without the need to call anyone in on overtime.

“So those first two people out the door will not hurt us on overtime,” he said.

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Duffy suggested that a ‘hybrid’ approach may work—in this case, adding a couple more firefighter positions to the town’s operating budget and funding the remainder needed through another Proposition 2 ½ override. While some members seemed to blanch at the mention of an override, there was a general agreement that it would need to be included in an overall funding strategy.

Responding to suggestions that funding for new fire department staff be found in the town’s general budget, Town Manager Shaun Suhoski said, “In our department head meetings, over time, I’ve been preparing them, telling them we’re not going to cannibalize, we’re not going to ruin the Police Department or the DPW, because we built those areas to where they need to be and now we need to address the Fire Department. We’re going to be lean, but we’re going to try to create a way to get the staff there.”

Suhoski said his finance team, which includes the town’s accountant, treasurer and assessor, have been meeting with Guarnera and deputy chiefs to see if the figure presented to voters in July was as accurate as it should have been.

“We’re still sticking with two people per shift,” he said. “We’re just trying to come up with a per-body cost. Then we get to a dollar amount. Give us a week or two and we’ll start to know what state aid looks like. We’re going to have department requests start to come in, and we’ll have a much better handle on the actual cost.”

A final cost will be voted on by the committee on whether to recommend to the Board of Selectmen.

Gary Deyo, representing the Capital Programs Committee on the staffing panel, said, “Each one of us, everybody out there, wants the best service in the world, but they really don’t want to pay for it. That’s the reality of the situation. We need personnel and we have to find a way to pay them. An override is the only way to get the funding.”

The Staffing Advisory Committee will meet again next Wednesday to review the figures. If an override is to be considered, it needs to be presented to the Board of Selectmen soon. In order to place an override proposal on the annual Town Meeting warrant, the board needs to endorse it no later than its meeting on Feb. 20.

“We need to come up with something that is viable to protect Athol citizens,” said board member Brian Dodge, who also serves on the staffing committee.

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