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fire Chief Robert Pedrazzi

By Gayle Simone

Staff Writer

AYER — Making a significant impact doesn’t always mean putting on a uniform to protect a community or country.

For North Middlesex Savings Bank, it means being the financial support behind the Student Awareness of Fire Education (SAFE) program.

The SAFE. Program began in 1994 when the Commonwealth began providing funding to fire departments, enabling firefighters to provide fire safety education to schoolchildren.

But increasingly tight financial times have led to state decisions against continuing full fiscal support.

That situation brought about a decision by North Middlesex Savings Bank in 2001.

“When we started to expand our marketplace, we were looking for something we could do on a regional basis,” President and CEO William Marshall said. “We wanted to impact an entity that touched the entirety of the community.”

Often businesses get involved in schools, senior groups or cultural functions, said Marshall.

“While those are quite important to the quality of life, they are basically segmented in terms of who attends, who participates and who’s benefiting from it,” he said.

“Looking at that type of environment, we thought it was important to try and find something that everyone could relate tom” he said, “and that was impacted by everyone involved.”

Serving the communities of Ayer, Devens, Groton, Harvard, Littleton, Lunenburg, Pepperell and Shirley, the bank set aside a substantial amount of money in 2001 to help the fire departments fund their SAFE programs through a grant program.

“We thought the SAFE program had universal appeal across our entire market,” Marshall said. “We pledged we would give each of the fire departments up to $1,500 per year.

“We partnered with the state Fire Marshall’s (Stephen Coan) office so the grant had to be submitted through that office,” Marshall said. “We didn’t want to look at the grants and say, ‘OK, everything looks good.’ We wanted someone to make sure the grant proposal was within the guidelines of the SAFE program.”

In the town of Ayer, the grant is not the only support from North Middlesex Savings Bank to the Fire Department. The bank also raises money with an annual softball tournament at Pirone Park.

“We’ve been having the tournament for the last 15 years,” Marshall said. “The last (five) years we’ve been raising money for the SAFE program here in town. We raise anywhere between $3,000 and $5,000 as a result of the tournament.”

While the grant program benefits all eight communities, the softball tournament is strictly to benefit the Fire Department in Ayer.

“The Ayer Fire Department has been extremely supportive to us as well,” Marshall said. “The weekend we have the softball tournament, not only does the Fire Department always have a team but they also have firefighters at the bank promoting fire safety.

“The whole volunteerism of the fire department works well with our commitment of volunteerism to help the community succeed,” Marshall said.

Teaching fire safety to students at Page Hilltop School in fall and spring for a full-week is just the beginning of the Fire Department’s efforts. They also hold an Ice Safety Day just before Christmas vacation and a one-day SAFE. Camp in the summer.

“Without the bank’s dedication, we’d have to scale (the program) way back,” fire Chief Robert Pedrazzi said. “They’re very enthusiastic. They’re the main source of funding. I’d like to recognize them for their effort. It’s above and beyond the call of duty.”

With funding from the bank, Pedrazzi said he was looking into developing more programs.

“We’re thinking about doing a training on fire safety in college for the seniors at the high school,” he said. “We’ve done CPR and train safety in the past. Maybe we could bring those back as well.”

Capt. Paul Fillebrown runs the SAFE program. He knows how fortunate he is, he said, to have not only the support of Pedrazzi and North Middlesex Savings Bank, but the school department as well.

“We needed to get the community to buy into the program, which they have,” he said. “We’re very lucky in Ayer. We have a great school system that allows us to go in and teach their kids.”

The program not only teaches about fire safety, it also provides children with the opportunity to get to know the firefighters in their town.

To date, North Middlesex Savings Bank has provided the Ayer Fire Department alone with $28,000 for their SAFE program.

“They may not wear a fire uniform,” Fillebrown said. “They may not work for the Ayer Fire Department. But they make a huge impact in our program.”

Coan’s office has informed North Middlesex Savings Bank that they are the only entity committed to the funding for a region, Marshall said.

“We think that’s a real step forward in recognizing the need for the education,” he said. “We think this is a great way to really put (our) mark on the community.

“Not only does (the program) reach everybody,” Marshall said, “but it’s important and it creates a much better living environment for everyone.”