HAVERHILL — For decades, city leaders have talked about the need for better firefighter coverage in rural areas such as Ayers Village and Rocks Village.
These sections of the city have been steadily growing and to protect life and property, talks have focused on opening fire stations in those areas so that help can get there more quickly.
That's what Firefighter Timothy Carroll, president of IAFF Local 1011, told the City Council at its July 23 meeting when asking for its support to increase firefighter staffing levels for the safety of firefighters and the public.
Mayor James Fiorentini told The Eagle-Tribune that Carroll's plan would cost millions of dollars to implement, and that it would likely require a tax override to pay for it.
Carroll told the council that since 2004, staffing has been slowly declining.
"We used to have a 20 man minimum and now we have a 19 man minimum, since 2005, when the mayor cut manning to 19," Carroll said, noting the city now has one firefighter for every 700 people.
Carroll said that compared to communities with similarly sized populations, Haverhill, which has about 65,000 residents, has the fewest number of firefighters in the state.
He said the union's plan is to add firefighters each year until the department is up to 25 per shift, with a fifth engine company and a second ladder truck. He said the plan would include converting the Rocks Village call station into a full-time station, once there are enough firefighters to man it.
Carroll told The Eagle-Tribune that by adding four firefighters each year for six years, it would bring the department from its current staff of 95 firefighters to 120, resulting in a per shift total of 25 firefighters in comparison to today’s 19 per shift.
He said he did not include plans to renovate the tiny Ayers Village station, as it was gifted to the city just as long as that little station could fit a fire truck, but that none of the new fire trucks fit it.
“Ultimately, an ideal location for a new station would be in the area of the Broadway Business Park,” he said.
Carroll said that with additional firefighters, it would allow the Bradford fire station to staff Ladder 4, which is housed there only as backup truck in the event Ladder 1, housed at the Water Street station, is out for service.
“We would need to create more living space at the Bradford station if we had enough people for Ladder 4, and if we did, it would improve our response time to that area of the city,” he said.
Although he didn't specifically mention the Ayers Village area, which has also experienced a housing boom, Carroll did say the response time to Haverhill's rural areas falls short.
He said the department is supposed to make 90 percent of its calls within four minutes, but it takes longer to reach outlying areas of a city that encompasses 36 square miles.
"We don't make 90 percent for those calls," Carroll said. "Engine 1 will barely make four minutes to (the) target, let alone Crystal Street."
A boom in the construction of high rise buildings in the city continues, Carroll noted, and that the fire department needs to grow to meet that need.
"We're supposed to have a minimum of 42 people at a high rise fire, but we have 19 on shift," he said. "We don't meet any standard for an initial high rise attack."
Fire Chief William Laliberty told The Eagle-Tribune that Haverhill's firefighters are hardworking, professional and dedicated members of this city.
"They always answer the bell, serve our community at all times of the day and in all weather conditions without hesitation," he said. "They deserve to be well-equipped with the best equipment possible that we can afford."
But, Laliberty said that more firefighters, more fire engines and ladder trucks would require new and upgraded facilities (fire stations).
"It’s an expensive plan and a plan we cannot afford, at least at this time," Laliberty said, noting that a master plan committee is looking at smart growth for the city.
"I’ve asked them to look at the current locations of and the number of fire stations we might possibly need in the future," Laliberty said. "These issues are quality-of-life decisions for everyone and what the city can afford to make."
He said help is on the way as the city is working towards hiring four civilians as fire dispatchers and four firefighters currently serving as dispatchers will be transferred to the fire trucks, one in each group.
Fiorentini said the city does not have minimum manning requirements for how many firefighters it is required to have per shift.
"We are convinced that the city is safe and that our citizens are safe, but we will continue to look at this," the mayor said. "The downtown units (high rise buildings) mentioned by the head of the fire union were signed off, as all of our projects are, by the fire chief."
The mayor said the union' plan to hire 15 more firefighters would cost $10 million over a 10 year period, not including the increased cost of health care or overtime.
"This also does not include the cost of additional firefighters and does not include the cost of additional equipment," Fiorentini said. "This would almost certainly require and override, which would compete with our request to add more for schools.
"We are aware that every union and every department would like to have more money, more services, and more manpower," the mayor added. "All of this has to be balanced against an assessment of what the real needs are and against our ability to pay."
Councilor Michael McGonagle, chair of the public safety committee, said the council is concerned about the safety of firefighters and the public they serve.
"We'll send this to public safety to start the process," McGonagle said in reference to the union's plan. "We've always been an advocate for more equipment and more staffing.
"The mayor is the one who can do this," McGonagle added. "We will have to try to convince him."