Off-duty firefighters disrupt vacation to help put out NH fire
The off-duty firefighters vacationing at Hampton Beach sprang into action to help two understaffed engines responding to the scene
By Max Sullivan
Portsmouth Herald, N.H.
HAMPTON, N.H. — The town's fire chief said Saturday's blaze on Dover Avenue speaks to the need for more firefighters, as two understaffed engines that responded to the scene were assisted by off-duty firefighters on vacation at Hampton Beach.
The fire caused no injuries but badly damaged the third floor of a home at 15 Dover Ave., reports of the fire coming in at 1:53 p.m. Only three firefighters were on scene for the first seven minutes of the fire, according to Hampton Fire Chief Jameson Ayotte, as the department had calls out for medical and water rescue responses at the time.
Ayotte said one of the people who lived there was inside when a fire alarm went off. She was beginning to investigate when a neighbor outside saw the flames and told her to escape.
Ayotte said the fire was prevented from spreading to other structures, thanks to firefighters who responded even though they were on vacation. They helped hook up a hose line so a Hampton firefighter could continue to spray the flames with the engine's deck gun.
Ayotte said the cause of the blaze remains under investigation.
Ayotte said the fire demonstrated the need to add more firefighters, which he sought to do in March with a Town Meeting warrant article that voters rejected. Ayotte has argued that the department has had the same staffing it had in 1985 despite the town seeing significant growth since then. He put forth a warrant article for four new firefighters costing $414,616, a portion of which would have been covered by a grant but picked up by the town after three years.
While fire engines are typically staffed with three firefighters each, one that responded to Dover Avenue had two. A single firefighter made what Ayotte called a "judgment call" and took the other engine by himself.
"That's absolutely not a way that we want to do things," Ayotte said Monday. On Facebook, he posted a message thanking the off-duty firefighters for how they "expertly" responded without being asked and detailing how the simultaneous calls made it difficult to respond to the fire.
"Based on fire conditions and wind, this could have been significantly worse if it weren't for some quick judgment calls and action-oriented people putting in yeoman's efforts," said Ayotte.
When the fire was reported, the department was handling a medical call that required a third firefighter - one more than usual - due to the severity of the situation, he said. At the same time, a water emergency in Rye was called in, according to Ayotte, and the department's rescue boat, Marine 1, was dispatched. That required a fire officer and three firefighters per department policy due to the dangers of ocean calls, he said.
The call to Rye was canceled, but firefighters were still well outside the harbor on their way back when the lieutenant onboard Marine 1 noticed a column of smoke rising from the White Island section where Dover Avenue is located. It was then that calls began coming in to report the fire, he said. Firefighters were at the dock by 2:01 p.m. and on scene at 2:05 p.m., he said. The first apparatus was also on scene five minutes after the first call was received, firefighters impeded by heavy beach traffic, he said.
Ayotte said help from the off-duty firefighters was critical to the single firefighter manning the deck gun, which fires 500 to 800 gallons per minute and would have run out of water had Good Samaritans not helped link his hose to a water source. He said tasks on a fire scene must happen simultaneously because of how quickly fire can spread.
Some selectmen said they believe adding firefighters is still a pressing need. Selectman Jim Waddell said it was too soon to say if voters will see another article at Town Meeting in March looking to add more firefighters, but he said the need is real for the department.
"He's not using scare tactics or anything," said Waddell. "He's just stating facts. The fact is, we need more firefighters in the summertime."
However, Selectman Rick Griffin said taxpayers have spoken on whether they should spend on adding new firefighters when they rejected the article taking on four new positions in March.
"The voters are the ones who decide in the end," said Griffin.
©2019 Portsmouth Herald, N.H.