HARVARD — Fire Chief Robert Mignard came under a different kind of fire at the selectmen’s meeting Tuesday night.
He and other department heads presented their budgets at the meeting. But unlike the relatively matter-of-fact discussion of police, communications and public works budgets, Mignard’s departmental report raised an issue that Chairman William Marinelli said he wanted to discuss.
Among the line items in the fire department budget was one that Marinelli said he was concerned about — call stipends, which totaled $74,067 in FY06. The projected figure for FY07 is $82,450, an 11.32 percent increase. That kind of spike has caused concern in tight times and had led to asking how things can be done more efficiently, Marinelli said.
Asked how the call system works and how many firefighters respond to a single call, Chief Mignard said that when the call goes out, every firefighter on the roster has the right to respond. On average, that translates to eight firefighters during the day, he said, while at night, the turnout number may be as many as 12.
Mignard acknowledged that the crew that shows up at any given time could be more than a particular incident requires. But he said that to some extent, that is the nature of the emergency business in a part-time, paid call fire department such as Harvard’s.
It is also a built-in safety net, he said, since the seriousness of a situation can’t be determined until firefighters arrive at the scene.
He gave an example: Three firefighters set out to investigate a “funny smell” a resident reported in the basement of a local home. By the time firefighters arrive, flames are erupting from the residence. In this case, a call that started out as odor detection, has become a house fire, which is an entirely different scenario, the chief explained. It calls for more personnel, including someone in command, a designated fire truck driver and enough firefighters to knock down the fire. Possibilities in this realm are virtually endless, he said, and it is better to be prepared.
But Marinelli was not convinced that the risk of worst case scenarios negated the notion of a more balanced approach. In his view, the propensity for over responding is more likely than the possibility of a personnel shortfall. The example he used was a motor vehicle accident.
Mignard said the law requires firefighters to respond to any dangerous situation other than a crime, including all but the most minor motor vehicle accidents. Firefighters, police and ambulance crews all show up, he said, and if they don’t, the town could be held liable for any consequences. The “you never know …” adage applies here, Mignard said. Citing instances in which firefighters’ special skills are required, he noted that collisions can cause fires or spill flammable fluids onto a roadway that cause special handling.
But Marinelli underscored what he called a “converse argument” against too many people milling around an accident scene on Route 2 and suggested that may be a risk in itself. He asked Mignard if there was a way to handle the call-out system more efficiently.
Mignard said he had given the matter some thought and favored the idea of a two-squad system, active and reserve, to control automatic responses and ensure emergency coverage.
But the idea didn’t fly with the firefighters. “It did not go over well,” he said, shaking his head and emphasizing the word not. Still, he offered to explore the idea further if the selectmen so desired.
Selectman Scott Kimball was not surprised to hear that firefighters didn’t like the two-squad idea. He cautioned that a system that limits responses might backfire and argued for keeping the current call system in tact.
”They (responding firefighters) bring different talents, experiences and levels of education” to each incident, and limiting numbers could “seriously endanger” those who show up, he said.
Mignard said he is also concerned about morale. “This is a seriously motivated bunch …” he said of town firefighters. “… they’re all heart!” He worries, he said, about creating a system in which they would start to feel unwanted, where he would have to tell a certain number of firefighters, “You can’t come tonight.
”I hesitate to make it a mandate …” Mignard said.
Kimball predicted would happen if he did. “They won’t show up!” he said.
Mignard had other worries. He said that he and the firefighters are on the same page about avoiding a full-time department, which could happen, he said, if personnel matters are not carefully managed.
Selectman Robert Eubank agreed that no solution would be effective if it did not take morale into account. Resources must be managed keeping that in mind, he said.
Kimball, however, argued against changing the system “just to save a couple of bucks.”
For his part, Marinelli said he wants to investigate how other town fire departments handle calls and said it seemed unlikely that 12 Ayer firefighters, for example, respond to every call. “It’s legitimate to ask …” that Harvard look into other models, he said.
The selectmen conducted a more benign scan of the rest of the fire department budget, which Mignard explained, line by line.
He said additional hours are requested for an administrative assistant to streamline the paperwork process. “Office work is not my forte,” he said. But he had scaled back his original bid for a half-time employee as “not feasible,” he said.
The payroll for the SAFE program, $1,000 annually for both FY06 and FY07, was one he would have defended, but didn’t have to. It was called an “outstanding” program that the board had said they wanted to continue.
In past years, SAFE, which educates school children about fire and other safety issues, was paid for with government grants, but Mignard said grants are harder to come by now.
”Funds are in jeopardy,” he said, adding that even the state SAFE coordinator had her budget drastically cut.
The board did not ask to cut funds from the SAFE program here, however.