Mass. city fire union criticizes blackout policy after 2 fatal fires
The union said vehicle blackouts affect response times, while the city's fire chief said response times have remained within national standards
The Standard-Times, New Bedford, Mass.
NEW BEDFORD, Mass. — For the second time in two months, the New Bedford firefighters union has brought attention to the current mayoral administration's Fire Department blackout policy. The latest criticism comes in the wake of the second fatal fire in two months, both of them taking the lives of elderly victims. The fire chief in both cases has said response times have been within the national standard despite the blackouts.
Eighty-eight year old Robert Seamans was pronounced dead at 6:20 p.m. at St. Luke's Hospital Saturday, according to Gregg Miliote, a spokesman for Bristol County District Attorney Thomas M. Quinn III. He lived in the second floor unit of 141-143 Myrtle St., Miliote said. A fire had broken out at the West End two-family that day.
In October, 85-year-old Louise Barboza died at Rhode Island Hospital after she suffered second and third degree burns in a fire in her home on the third floor of a Coffin Avenue residence in the North End.
New Bedford Firefighters Local 841 which says it has always had a strong stance against blackouts, reported similar concerns about the blackouts after both fires.
"'Blackouts' affect response times and firefighters available on the scene to perform firefighting tasks and or rescue, it also leaves less coverage for the rest of the city during an incident," the union said in a statement on its Facebook page in response to the Myrtle Street fire Saturday.
Fire vehicle blackouts have been in effect since 2009 in New Bedford when former Mayor Scott Lang announced them in the wake of budget cuts made during the 2008 recession. Mayor Jon Mitchell took office in 2012 and they have also been used during his eight years in office.
The location of the Myrtle Street fire is in Engine 7's coverage area, which was blacked out that day, Fire Chief Paul Coderre Jr. confirmed. Engine 7 is located at 700 Cottage St., about .4 miles away from the fire.
The district chief was on scene within a minute and 40 seconds of dispatch, Coderre said. The chief gives the report of the scene and gives directions to the apparatuses on how to approach. Ladder 1 which is housed at Station 2 downtown arrived on scene within two minutes and 22 seconds of dispatch, and Engine 8 which is housed in Station 8 on Acushnet Avenue in the North End reported to the scene within three minutes and 53 seconds of dispatch, Coderre said.
"They're all within the national standards of our response times even with the blacked out company," Coderre said. Firefighters retrieved the victim within nine minutes of being on scene, which Coderre called "outstanding."
Officials said the cause of the fire on Myrtle Street appears to have been an electrical event in the kitchen, according to a news release from Jennifer Mieth, spokeswoman of the Department of Fire Services. The fire will remain officially undetermined because of the damage to the wiring and electronic appliances, according to the news release.
At 5:05 p.m. Saturday, the fire department received multiple 911 calls reporting a structure fire at the two-story Myrtle home, the fire department wrote on its Facebook page. Upon arriving, Command Unit 1 reported "heavy fire conditions" on the second floor with a report of residents trapped there, the department said.
Crews from Ladder Company 1 and Engine Company 8 made their way to the second floor and conducted a simultaneous interior fire attack and search and rescue operation.
They went up the front stairwell of the apartment which opened up into the living room and they were able to find Seamans a short distance from the door, Coderre said. He was rescued from the apartment and his care was transferred to EMS paramedics. He was transported to St. Luke's Emergency Department.
The two family home suffered "extensive damage," according to the department.
Two firefighters were treated at the scene for elevated blood pressure and minor smoke inhalation, Coderre said.
Asked whether there's anything significant about the fact that two elderly people died in the recent fires, Coderre said "I don't think age played any significant role in either of these fires."
The city has a Senior SAFE program that's implemented through state grants, Coderre said, but acknowledged that the department could do more.
"Could we be more comprehensive, could we reach a wider audience? Absolutely," he said, referring to the city population in general, not just the elderly.
The union statement said that during a fire or any other emergency, response time is crucial to rescue, survivability, and damage control. "This is why New Bedford Firefighters Local 841 has always and will always have a strong stance against 'blacking out of apparatus' and providing full and safe staffing levels of our Fire Department for the safety of its citizens and the firefighters who are sworn to protect them," the statement said.
Coderre said any time the first due apparatus is unavailable for any reason in an emergency, "it does change the dynamic of that call, but it doesn't necessarily change the outcome of that call." In the event of a residential fire, someone has to call 911 to alert responders, so it's unclear how long a fire is burning before someone calls, he said.
It's also not clear whether Engine 7 would've been the first to arrive on scene, because it depends on where it would've been coming from if it wasn't blacked out, Coderre said.
Union President Billy Sylvia said Engine 7 should have been the first on scene if it was available and had come from the station, but Ladder 1 was. Ladders don't have capabilities to put out fires, but cover ventilation and search and rescue, so they have to wait for the first engine to come, he said.
While it arrived within the industry standard, "time is of the essence," Sylvia stressed.
Sylvia acknowledged that he can't say the outcome would've changed and Seamans would've survived if Engine 7 wasn't blacked out. "I would like to think that the chances are a lot better," he said.
In the statement, the union said the blackouts are due to budget cuts and staffing shortages, which are decisions made at City Hall. Blackouts have been used for the last 10 years, which started with one truck on a limited basis, and only during the day.
"Under this administration, it has become a daily occurrence and even moved to 24 hours a day, when more residents are home overnight and risks can be even greater," the union charged.
Sylvia said while the Mitchell Administration has put money into the upkeep of the stations and their apparatuses, when thousands of dollars are spent on a new engine and it's often shut down, it's no good to anyone.
Jon Carvalho, the spokesman for Mayor Jon Mitchell, declined comment, saying the mayor defers to the chief on fire department matters.
©2020 The Standard-Times, New Bedford, Mass.