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Staffing, funding drive Mass. FDs to consider consolidating

Chester and Blandford fire chiefs are looking at the feasibility of combined volunteer fire departments

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Chester’s Fire Department is considering joining forces with Blandford’s Fire Department.

Namu Sampath / The Republican

By Namu Sampath
masslive.com

CHESTER, Mass. — It’s been five years since Chester and Blandford’s police departments became a joint operation. Now, their fire departments are considering the same future.

“One of the biggest driving factors is staffing issues,” said Henry Fristik, chief of Chester’s fire department.

In recent years, departments all over the country have been struggling to not only recruit people but also to retain them, he said.

Fristik has worked for the Chester Fire Department for over three decades. Last July, he was made chief of the department. His staff? All volunteers, he said, which is not uncommon for more rural areas.

Two other major reasons the departments are exploring banding together is to share expenses between the towns and to give themselves more edge to receive state grants.

“The state prioritizes regionalization,” he said. “Departments that merge have a higher chance of receiving funding for equipment, training, and the departments as a whole.”

In the 2023 fiscal year, Chester Fire Department’s budget was $35,500, which “just isn’t enough to cover all of the costs, especially the new equipment we need in a post-COVID world,” he said. In Blandford, according to town documents, their fire department’s recommended budget for the 2023 fiscal year was $62,456.

Fristik said the Chester-Blandford marriage is still in its earliest stages. Fristik and Adam Dolby, Blandford’s fire chief, have only briefly discussed what a shared fire services department would look like.

Dolby did not immediately return The Republican’s requests for comment.

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The Pioneer Valley Planning Commission has set aside $5,000 in technical assistance funding to help the two towns explore the feasibility of their idea to merge.

Last year, Chester hit a record high in calls: 176. And the department is well on its way to surpass 200 calls this year, which is a lot for the small town that usually averages 130 calls a year, Fristik said.

Chester’s population in the 2020 U.S. Census was 1,228 people.

“It’s not always fire calls we’re responding to,” he said. “About 70% of the calls we receive are for EMS, and the other 30% are for fires.”

Chester’s fire department frequently provides mutual aid to several of the surrounding towns, including Russell, Huntington, Montgomery and Blandford, Fristik said. If Chester and Blandford become one fire department, this support won’t change.

“If anything, it’ll be enhanced because we’ll have, hopefully, more staffing, more availability, and more equipment to send,” he said.

The chief said that three to four of his eight active volunteer staff are available on a day-to-day basis. There are 14 volunteers on the roster but not all of them are active.

“It’s a struggle. We have (a lot of) people who join (who) are in the military, which is great, but then they get called away for service,” he said.

Fristik said he didn’t know the number of volunteers Blandford’s fire department has, but said Chester’s numbers are about the average for the surrounding towns, if not a little higher.

Volunteers are not paid for their service, but the chief said the town is open to discussions about moving in a direction where they would be.

Eric Weiss, the director of economic and municipal collaboration at Pioneer Valley Planning Commission, is leading the technical assistance the commission is providing to the towns to explore this shared department.

‘The towns have been expressing that they think a joint effort would be beneficial to them,” Weiss said. He also provided technical assistance to help the police departments combine in 2019.

Fristik is Chester’s fifth fire chief since he became a volunteer at 16 years old.

He hopes that the shared fire department will allow other towns to model after them.

“Either they do their own or they join with us,” he said. “It’s got to happen for the greater good.”

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