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Photo by Ryan Lessard.




Firefighters spread thin
Unions, candidates call for more staff in Manchester

07/30/15
By Ryan Lessard news@hippopress.com



 Longstanding staffing concerns at the Manchester Fire Department are coming to a head. As the firefighters’ union blames recent injuries on staff shortages, mayoral candidates are promising to address staffing in the city budget, while incumbent Mayor Ted Gatsas says the shortage has nothing to do with the budget.

 
Burned
It was June 22 when a Walnut Street apartment building became engulfed in flames. Three firefighters were the first to arrive at the two-alarm fire from Station 5 on Webster Street with a water pump. Another truck, a ladder, was on its way from Merrimack Street’s Central Station.
Jeff Duval, the president of International Association of Fire Fighters Local 856, said the ladder truck was only about 90 seconds behind.
“It did make a difference, those extra 90 seconds,” Duval said.
With no time to spare, the first truck to arrive had to snap into action to rescue a woman on the second floor whose nightgown had caught on fire.
“The lieutenant made the call to … go out and grab the 24-foot ground ladder,” Duval said.
Three firefighters, Carl Milliard, Scott Brassard and Lt. Michael Smith, went to rescue the woman from her balcony.
“[The rescue] normally would have been the duties of the ladder company, allowing the engine company to put water on the fire or even to provide some sort of fire curtain to protect them as well as the woman,” Duval said.
The woman had second-degree burns on a third of her body while the three firefighters each suffered injuries ranging from a minor knee injury to mostly first-degree burns on hands, ears and neck. The man with the most severe burns will not return to work for another four to six weeks, according to Duval.
On July 2, Duval released a statement blaming the incident on a lack of adequate staffing, saying that more than 30 positions were lost to budget cuts over the past decade.
“It’s not a new concern. It’s a concern we’ve had for quite a while, since we’ve been losing manpower,” Duval said.
 
The budget
Duval said the department is currently staffed with 190 line firefighters, lieutenants and captains, with 46 serving every four shifts. He said in 2008 the department had a total of 212 with about 52 or 53 firefighters serving per shift.
“The major hit for us was the 2011 budget where we ended up having 15 firefighters sent home through the budget that was presented by Mayor Ted Gatsas and voted on and approved by the aldermen,” Duval said. “This is the lowest that we’ve been at. We have not increased [the complement]. This is since 2011.”
And Duval said three stations, on Webster Street, Mammoth Road and Amory Street, are currently operating with shared staff. This means even if a station has both a ladder and a pump, there’s only enough staff to respond with one truck from each station. And most trucks are running with three-man teams while the national standard is to have trucks manned with four firefighters.
“If we had [the five ladder trucks in the city] properly staffed, then we’d be hitting the mark better, and we should be,” Duval said.
A two-year SAFER grant in 2012 that would have added eight firefighters was voted for by nine aldermen but vetoed by Gatsas, who cited concerns that it was one-time money. Alderman Joyce Craig, who voted for the grant and is running for mayor this year, said the department sees about six to eight retirements each year, so that should have alleviated any concerns over covering the cost in the third year.
This year, virtually all spending increases in the city budget went to the school district.
“This year was a little bit of a surprise when even the aldermen budget that came through actually flat-funded the fire department and a couple of other departments as well,” Duval said.
When asked about Duval’s concerns, Gatsas said fire department staffing was the responsibility of Fire Chief James Burkush.
“It has nothing to do with the budget,” Gatsas said.
Meanwhile, his three opponents for the city’s top office — Craig, businessman Jawed Alibaba Shaikh and former Alderman Patrick Arnold — each told the Hippo firefighter staffing is a priority.
Alibaba said he would try to restore 30 positions to the department. Craig said another attempt at obtaining a SAFER grant would be an option. And Arnold puts the blame for the staffing issue on City Hall.
“Public safety is the number one concern to the people I talk to,” Arnold said. “Four firefighters per piece [of apparatus] is the standard.”
Duval agrees this is a public safety issue.
“This is not a ploy for negotiations, by no means, for us. This is about staffing and staffing only,” Duval said. “This is about the safety of the citizens as well as the safety of our firefighters.” 
 
As seen in the July 30th 2015 issue of the Hippo. 





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