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Staff Writer

PEPPERELL — Finance Committee members told Fire Chief Toby Tyler that it’s too early to back seeking a SAFER (Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response) grant to help pay for two full-time firefighters but most agreed they should go for it.

Having gained selectmen’s approval for a $1,400 grant writing contract, Tyler and Deputy Fire Chiefs Peter Shattuck and Jim Straitiff polled the FinCom the last week in June.

Tyler said $110 million in federal funds has been set aside for the program on a first come, first served basis and it’s just become available.

If approved, Pepperell would receive $103,500 over four years in decreasing amounts which it would use to partially pay two full-time Monday through Friday firefighters. Tyler said one, Al Deshler, was hired in 2005.

In the fifth year, the town pays the entire bill. The town’s share over the five years for the pay grade five position would be $267,442.

If the money is granted, both positions must remain filled for five years and staff level must remain greater than when the application was made or forfeit the grant.

That, Shattuck said, is the thrust of the request.

“I see a huge (staffing) problem in the Fire Department. We’re a little behind for the population,” he said. “A couple of years ago there was no problem, but training has increased and we’ve lost good people because of it.

“Full timers know they have to train. Meanwhile, we’re being asked ‘do we have to train more? I don’t see my kids now.’ At a recent accident there were just two chiefs in the truck plus Hollis, NH,” Shattuck said.

He debunked prevailing thought that the Highway Department has plenty of firefighters on its staff. There is only himself and one other.

“That shouldn’t be,” Shattuck said. “We need people, not titles. We explained our case to selectmen and Joe Sergi even called me the next day at work to say we should go for the grant.”

When town accountant Theresa Walsh asked if the department could go for one, not two positions, Straitiff explained National Fire Protection Association standard calls for a minimum of two men inside and two outside a fire.

Shattuck said at the outset of a fire call many times he and is the only man inside with one other outside in the truck.

“If someone got hurt or killed the fact is they’d be on us. The people don’t see it,” he said.

“The timing is horrible,” said FinCom member Christopher DeSimone. “We don’t know the school budget and may have to do an override. “I’m a huge fan of the Fire Department, but. . .”

“We know that and we aren’t trying to slam this,” Shattuck said. “We’re holding our own but we have to alert you. If we don’t do this what do you think we should do, tell town meeting we’re low (on manpower)?”

Tyler advised that the department’s five-year plan calls for adding an inspector later on.

“We’re going toward an override because we’re limited by Proposition two-and-a-half,” Chairman Diane Gaspar said. “We don’t know what the state will do. People are going to have to make choices. I’m pro public safety. I’d support one position.”

“Assume we say ‘no’ and you get the grant, will we support the budget? We don’t know,” DeSimone said. “I’m voting no because I don’t think we can support it. Two years out, who knows?”

“Speaking for me, I’m not going to town meeting to ask over your vote,” Shattuck said. “It’s always known (at town meeting) to go with the Finance Committee. You’re crunching pennies and it’s not a good idea to go against you.”

“People sometimes vote their heart on hot button positions,” Gaspar said.

“We’re asking for a vote whether to go for the grant or not. We can stop the process,” Tyler said.

Committee member Burke Bero said it’s ‘hard” to support, “too early” in the budget process.

Gaspar said it is “not something we should vote on.”

Committee member Shawn Cummings called for a prioritization of the most important positions to fill.

“We’re not that busy inspection-wise right now. What’s the sense of the board?” Tyler asked again.

“Go for it and hope for some future relief,” Gaspar said.

“Go,” Bero agreed.

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