Athol considers next steps for firefighter staffing

By GREG VINE

For the Athol Daily News

Published: 08-06-2023 6:00 PM

ATHOL – Following the defeat of a Proposition 2 ½ override to fund the hiring of eight new firefighters, Fire Chief Joseph Guarnera said he is unsure what to do next.

The $895,000 override would have paid the salaries, insurance and retirement costs for the new hires, and a permanent tax increase would result, to ensure those positions remain. Following approval at the Annual Town Meeting, the override met with resounding defeat at the July 31 Special Town Election by a vote of 257 in favor and 501 against.

A total of 758 people cast ballots—less than 9% of the town’s 8,475 registered voters.

The chief called the vote “a sad day for the Town of Athol.”

“There was a staffing shortage that was identified over 10 years ago,” he said. “This was a chance to go forward and bring staffing levels at least close to what they should be.”

Athol has been operating with a staffing level of four firefighters per shift, below the state average of six. Guarnera said that an ad hoc committee organized last year came up with the staffing recommendations.

“I’ve been preaching that since I started here,” Guarnera said. “It’s come to the point where it’s critical. It’s critical for the safety of the firefighters and the safety of the residents.”

Disinformation, misinformation a problem

The chief said he understands the desire of taxpayers to ensure their money is spent wisely. However, in the weeks leading up to the vote he heard comments suggesting the special election wasn’t advertised or that it was kept a secret. Others suggested that call volume numbers were inaccurate or firefighters are paid too much.

Article continues after...

Yesterday's Most Read Articles

Two killed in Royalston collision
Storms leave hundreds without power in Athol, Greenfield
Homeless living in Athol garage say cost of housing is biggest obstacle
Athol committee considers ways to deter trespassers at parking garage
Upgrades planned for Athol’s retail shopping area
Senate charts course to soothe ‘struggling’ health sector

“That was very disturbing to me and disturbing to this department,” said the chief. “From the very beginning when we started this whole thing, transparency was the number one thing the group wanted to make sure of. Everything had to be factual and transparent.”

To that point, Guarnera held informational sessions with the several town boards, as well as public forums at the Senior Center, fire station and Town Hall. He also did interviews with local media and Athol Orange Community Television. Guarnera attempted to address questions on social media, but said this led to allegations made regarding the override and whether it was needed.

“That’s when I stopped posting things on social media, because the information some people were putting out just was not accurate at all,” he said.

Guarnera said the effort to discredit the override appeared to have been led by a small group of people, whom he declined to publicly identify.

“None of these people…came to the information sessions, and I would have loved to have talked with them,” he said.

What’s next

The fire chief said he’s uncertain about how to proceed at this point. The possibility of putting another override before the voters has been discussed, but he feels this wouldn’t be well received.

“Unfortunately, at this point, we have to live with the outcome,” Guarnera said. “Do we go back to the people now, or do we regroup, see what we did wrong, and go back at a later date. At this point, in all honesty, I don’t know what we’re going to do.”

Guarnera said many people have asked about the possibility of getting grants to fund new positions. One such grant is the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grant, created to enhance a departments’ ability to comply with staffing, response and operational standards. Guarnera said he’s applied for that every year since he became chief, but the town has yet to receive one. Another concern is that grants don’t last forever, and the town would either need to allocate money to keep the hires or risk losing them.

“You cannot depend on grants, but I hear that all the time,” he said.

For the time being, Guarnera said discussions with the town manager, various boards and committees, and department heads will continue in hopes of coming up with a way to ease the staffing problem.

“We’re not going to solve it now,” he said. “But we need to look at ways of improving the situation as best we can.”

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

]]>