New Bedford officials seek to keep Engine 8 open
Anastasia E. Lennon, The Standard-Times, New Bedford, Mass.
Feb. 28–NEW BEDFORD – As spring approaches – a time that is supposed to mark the opening of new public safety center and the decommissioning of a city fire engine – city officials have raised their voices, again, to keep the engine in service.
During Thursday’s City Council meeting, Councilor-at-large Brian Gomes submitted a motion requesting the council go on record again and send a letter to the administration in opposition to the decommissioning of Engine 8 on Acushnet Avenue.
The motion also requests the decision be delayed so that Mayor Jon Mitchell and the council can “work together” to find funding that will enable the engine to stay in service.
City Public Information Officer Jonathan Carvalho said they do not have a date yet for the decommissioning of Engine 8, or for the opening of the new South End Public Safety Center, but that the latter is expected to open this spring.
Ward 3 Councilor Hugh Dunn said it is “unfathomable” and “reckless” that the city is taking away the engine, especially in light of new development at the golf course. He said if Engine 7 is responding to another fire, Engine 8 would likely be the first to respond to the new development.
Ward 4 Councilor Derek Baptiste and a few other councilors said the area around Engine 8 is densely populated by both people and multistory housing, making coverage and quick response times all the more critical.
Ward 2 Councilor Maria Giesta said she and other councilors met virtually with Mitchell a week or two ago to ask him to reconsider the decommissioning and apply for another SAFER grant.
SAFER – Staffing For Adequate Fire And Emergency Response – is a multiyear federal grant offered by FEMA to provide funding directly to fire departments to help them increase or maintain the number of firefighters in their communities, and comply with national codes and standards.
Since 2010, New Bedford has received three SAFER grants, according to information provided by Carvalho.
From May 2011 to September 2013, a nearly $12.9 million grant supported 70 positions. From December 2013 to March 2016, a nearly $12.3 million grant supported 63 positions. And from July 2016 through November 2018, a $4.6 million grant supported 21 positions.
As the city was in the midst of its last grant to date, the 2017 budget document stated: “Since 2012, the city has sought to reduce its reliance on the SAFER grant to staff the Fire Department by moving firefighters to the General Fund payroll.”
Councilor-at-large Linda Morad, who serves on the finance committee, said she did not agree with the part of Gomes’ motion that called for outright opposition because they have a “fiduciary responsibility” as councilors and it is a “station that I know we can’t pay for.”
Some councilors erroneously said “Station 8” was closing, but it is only the engine going out of service to be replaced with a quint. The station, which was recently renovated, will remain open and Ladder 4 will stay as a reserve at the station.
Morad said she and Council President Joseph Lopes consulted with New Bedford’s CFO Ari Sky about possible funds in the budget for Engine 8 and learned the fire department had spent over $1 million in overtime through December (half of the fiscal year), which she called “a lot of money.”
She said getting another SAFER grant might be a good short-term solution until they can determine a long-term, sustainable source of funding for Engine 8.
Morad moved to amend the motion to state the council opposes the closure of Engine 8 only through the fiscal year as the city already budgeted for it to remain open through fiscal year 2021, which ends around July. Gomes accepted the amendment and the motion passed unanimously.
In an email to the Standard-Times, Mitchell said it “makes sense” to pursue more SAFER funding at this time. The application is due mid-March and the city will be notified of possible funding in the fall.
“If the City is successful, the funding would enable the fire department to maintain service levels until we are able to build a new fire station in the North End, like the one we’re now completing in the South End, while avoiding a long-term gap in the City’s operating budget,” the mayor wrote.
Much of the upset about decommissioning Engine 8 concerns the type of truck that will be replacing the engine: a quint. The apparatus is a sort of hybrid between the ladder truck, which provides access to buildings through tools and an aerial ladder, and the engine truck, which carries and pumps water to extinguish the fire. The quint serves both functions to a degree, but carries fewer firefighters and has some limitations, according to critics.
Councilors raised concerns about the quint – a truck they say is 15 years old, too long to navigate the turns of narrow city streets as well as the engine does, and too short to reach higher stories.
Billy Sylvia, president of firefighter union Local 841, said quints are problematic because they cannot maneuver the city streets as well and carry fewer firefighters. An engine and ladder truck carry a combined eight firefighters, but the quint carries only six, he said.
He said he is also concerned by the quint’s age of about 15 years when the life expectancy of their trucks is about 12 to 15. He said Engine 8 has a high call volume and that equipment which services the area “takes a beating.”
Station 11 in the South End closed in March 2020. A month prior, Fire Chief Paul Coderre announced Engine 11’s decommissioning as a way to end the city’s policy of blacking out one of the city’s 10 fire companies on a rotating basis.
Last July and a few months into the coronavirus pandemic, Mitchell announced during his fiscal year 2021 budget proposal that Engine 8 would be decommissioned next.
“The rationale for this selection is that at the same station there is a hybrid engine and ladder, which can continue to serve effectively the same area of responsibility,” Mitchell said in his address.
He said the new public safety center on Brock Avenue was going to be the first station built in the city in over 60 years and that they should not wait that long to build another.
“I am proposing that we use some of the savings for a feasibility study for a new fire station in the North End. An investment in another modern fire facility will enable the fire department to be more effective in the long run,” he said.
In response to statements made by the councilors Thursday, Mitchell said the economic impacts of the pandemic have created a “multi-million dollar hole” in the city’s budget that will likely last for a few years.
“As I’ve said before, I refuse to allow our City to slide into a vulnerable long term financial position,” Mitchell wrote. “Rather than kicking the problem down road, we made service reductions across city government this year that are manageable, so we can avoid more intense budget pressures later on that could result in widespread layoffs of city employees, debilitating cuts to core municipal services, and massive tax increases.”
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