Firefighter override to be decided at Athol Town Election

Athol Fire Department.

Athol Fire Department. File Photo/Greg Vine

By GREG VINE

For the Athol Daily News

Published: 03-25-2024 5:00 PM

ATHOL – In less than a week, voters will decide whether to support a $286,000 Proposition 2 ½ override to fund the hiring of three paramedic/EMT/firefighters for the town’s fire department.

The override is on the ballot for the Town Election, which will take place on Monday, April 1. Polls will be open from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. at Memorial Hall, Town Hall, 584 Main St. All vote by mail ballots must be received by 8 p.m. on April 1.

Supporters of the override argue that the additional staff—plus one additional position which will be paid for through the fiscal year 2025 budget—are crucial to maintaining the current level of service. The department currently employs 16 full-time personnel who staff four shifts every day.

The Athol Daily News sat down with Fire Chief Joseph Guarnera, Deputy Chief Jeff Parker, Athol Firefighters Association President Travis Brailey, and Selectboard member Rebecca Bialecki to discuss their reasons for backing the override. The ballot question was framed by a Fire Department Staffing Advisory Committee formed in the wake of last year’s defeat of another proposed override that would have added eight firefighters at a cost of $895,000.

Brailey said demands on the staff have grown steadily in the seven years he has been a member of the department. More personnel, he said, would help reduce the workload on the department’s firefighters, some of whom may end up putting in 80 or more hours per week, depending on call volume.

“We might get a break and we won’t be required to be here as much,” Brailey said. “The voluntary overtime will always be there but, right now, with the lack of manpower, people are really pushing themselves.”

Reducing the number of hours worked, Brailey argued, would help reduce stress on firefighters and their families, as well as the likelihood of injuries. At the moment, he said that three medics are out due to injury. Mistakes while responding to medical calls would also be less likely, he said.

“Luckily, we haven’t had any of those yet, but we want to be as sharp as possible when responding,” Brailey said.

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Bialecki, who served along with Brian Dodge as Selectboard representatives on the staffing committee, said, “We really took a long and thoughtful approach to determining what we need to do that’s going to make a difference, to have an impact for these folks and still be able to maintain the current level of service with better safety for everybody – and still be affordable for the voters.”

Bialecki and Brailey both said that many people have the misconception that fire department staff sits around the station all day, just waiting to respond to a fire once in a while. Guarnera said that Athol’s fire crews may respond to six calls one day and 22 the next. In 2023, the AFD responded to 4,150 calls. At least two people respond to each call, regardless of its nature. Massachusetts communities with similar call volumes, said Guarnera, average anywhere between eight and 11 firefighters per shift, as opposed to Athol’s current staffing level of four per shift.

“The fire department averages 11 or 12 calls a day,” said Parker. “I’d say 75 percent of those are ambulance calls.”

But, Guarnera pointed out, the department also responds to plenty of non-medical calls.

“Just last week alone,” he said, “we had two chimney fires, a three-alarm fire, and a car head-on into a tree. So with everybody responding to a chimney fire, there’s nobody to respond to medical calls when they come in.”

Because the contract between the town and the AFA requires a minimum of three personnel to be on hand at the station, every time two people respond to a call, this leaves only two at the station, and a third person has to be called in. Every time this happens, it requires overtime pay. The addition of a fifth person on each shift will help to avoid this, supporters said.

“These guys did not sign up for 90 to 100 (hours) a week, week after week after week,” said Bialecki. “These guys have no lives. Firefighters already have a particularly high percentage of mental health issues, substance abuse – it comes with the job, just like cops. They also have the highest divorce rates. In towns like this, you’re setting them up for that. If we have unhappy, unhealthy folks on our department, and we’re not doing anything about that, that is not okay.”

If the override passes, it will add 22 cents per $1,000 of property value to the tax rate. With the average single-family home in Athol valued at $288,000, the average property tax bill would increase by $62 a year, or just over $5 per month.

“I had a guy on Facebook say, ‘I support our firefighters, I just don’t support raising taxes,’” Bialecki related. “’Well, how do you think we pay for our firefighters?’ I asked.”

Guarnera, Brailey and other town officials have planned several information sessions leading up to the election. Last week, they met with residents at the Millers Woods/Riverbend housing development. People were also invited to speak with Guarnera at the fire station at a recent meeting. This Wednesday, another meeting will be held at the Athol Senior Center at 1 p.m.

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