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NH fire chief says previous staffing plan may not be enough

The fire department has experienced decades of stagnant staffing, which officials say have caused longer emergency response times in Salem


By Allison DeAngelis
The Eagle-Tribune

SALEM, N.H. — The Salem Fire Department followed suit with its fellow first responders Monday, requesting the Board of Selectmen consider increasing the previously set staffing plans and potentially renegotiate the Tuscan Village development agreement.

Both the police and fire departments have experienced decades of stagnant staffing, which department leaders say have caused longer emergency response times in Salem and more cases in which the fire department has to ask for assistance from neighboring towns. Police officials asked the board last week to double its previous plan for new officers, and the fire department asked the board to also reconsider firefighter staffing levels.

"Our shift commanders are often scrambling to staff our apparatuses with off-duty members... I get messages from my shift commanders that say, 'We reached failure point today.' We continue to reach this critical mass," Fire Chief Paul Parisi said before addressing the plan for 12 new firefighters he had previous brought forward.

"With the Tuscan plans now fully underway, I want to leave open possibility that that may not be enough. I think it would be irresponsible of me to say that this is going to be the plan."

Looming development is expected to strain the department's existing emergency issues, and is already leaving inspectors trying to keep their heads above the sea of permitting paperwork, the chief said.

It's expected that the couple of dozen new residential and commercial properties in progress in Salem will cause a 20 percent increase in emergency calls.

Additionally, the fire department is currently seeing an increase in its Narcan use and drug-related deaths in Salem, though the department has responded to fewer overdoses than in previous years.

Currently, the department is unable to comply with the National Fire Protection Association's four-minute standard for emergency services response times. Earlier this month, the department had to request the Methuen Fire Department respond to an unconscious overdose victim, leading to an 11-minute response time.

In addition to fires and medical emergencies, the department also oversees health inspections, building safety inspections and permits — areas that have been significantly impacted by the ongoing development boom.

Independent of the Tuscan project, the town is looking at approximately 6.5 million-square-feet of new commercial buildings.

"Salem is an extremely busy community right now... In terms of the permits issued, 2017 is running 20 percent ahead of previous years, and that does not include the Tuscan Village development," Fire Marshal Jeffrey Emanuelson said.

In addition to the board carefully considering the staffing levels, Parisi proposed constructing a new fire station west of I-93.

Close to 20 percent of the town's service calls currently originate on the west side of Salem, and a department projection showed a sharp decrease in response times with addition of a fourth station.

While the department is asking for more money, Parisi said there are multiple ways that the town could pay the bill.

Salem Fire recently applied for and was granted a $1.58 million grant from FEMA that will cover most of the cost for eight new firefighters. The chief also cited the town of Westwood, Mass., which negotiated with the developer behind a large project to give the town some of the money they could expect from taxes and other fees in advance.

The board will continue to hear presentations from department heads over the next few weeks before deciding on a budget and tax rate for 2018.

Copyright 2017 The Eagle-Tribune

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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