PEPPERELL — Fire Chief Toby Tyler and deputy chiefs lost their bid to bring two full-time firefighters on board to embellish daytime response capabilities, after Annual Town Meeting voters rejected a $110,000 override request to pay the new salaries.
The vote was taken during a continued May 6 town meeting session that passed a $1 million override request the night before to pay the 2009 regional school district budget as the town faces a $1.9 million deficit.
Tyler, one of four full-time fire employees, said he wants to guarantee daytime response because many in the all-volunteer department are out of town working. Nighttime coverage, from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., is not a problem, he said.
The chief had also sought a full-time secretary but backed away from the request after meeting with Finance Committee resistance. At the committee’s request, selectmen considered then ordered a hiring freeze more than two months ago.
Call volumes for both fire and ambulance response are ever-increasing, and there have been times when as few as two responders were available, Tyler said. Dependency on mutual aid is becoming common. Both Groton and Townsend have full-time fire department employees.
Unexpected opposition came from retired former fire chief Costa Bozicas and former highway surveyor and “town father” Kim Spaulding.
Bozicas said the new men would not be true full-timers when the anticipated 12- to 14-hour shifts, vacations, holidays and training days are considered.
“Two aren’t enough, and they (fire engineers) will come back (with more requests) next year and the next,” he said.
Bozicas maintained he sees people who could qualify as firefighters around town every day, asking if any had been approached about the job. Call volumes may be up, but actual fire calls are not, he said.
Full-timers are “gonna degrade the call volunteers we have,” Bozicas said. “They do (the job) because they love the town and the people. They respond fast, plus we have mutual aid in Groton, Townsend and Hollis, N.H.”
Tyler said there are six vacant spots but it is difficult to get volunteers to fill them these days. He argued that mutual aid, while essential, can be delayed 10 to 20 minutes.
Spaulding said he has the “utmost respect and admiration” for the Fire Department but “we just cannot afford it at this time.
“Daytime coverage is and has been a consideration,” he said, “But fires have always been put out. The idea of having to wait for backup is ludicrous.”
Spaulding’s viewpoint vied with that of veteran Deputy Fire Chief and Highway Superintendent Peter Shattuck, who said it’s the necessary commitment to ever-increasing mandatory training that is problematical for volunteers.
Relating a story about a Varnum Brook Elementary School evacuation of 400 children answered by just himself, Tyler and four volunteers, he said, “We aren’t the department we could be.
“I was put in charge. We see a problem. We’re telling you about it,” Shattuck said.
“If you vote no, I understand. We’ll do the best we can every time. I hate to say we need $110,000 in hard times. It’s against my grain. I’m asking you,” Shattuck said.
The article needed a two-thirds majority but lost on a voice vote.