Mass. unions criticize reliance on mutual aid amid funding dispute
The Fairhaven firefighters' union spoke out against staffing cuts in the neighboring city of New Bedford
The Standard-Times, New Bedford, Mass.
NEW BEDFORD, Mass. — Discontent with how budget decisions are impacting the New Bedford Fire Department has spread beyond the New Bedford Firefighters IAFF Local 841 to a neighboring firefighters' union.
On June 12, after the Fairhaven Fire Department provided mutual aid for two fires in the city within three days, Fairhaven Firefighters Association Local 1555 posted a statement to Facebook criticizing New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell.
"The Mayor cuts NBFD staffing and apparatus and the Town of Fairhaven ends up supplementing the City. Costs associated with mutual aid come out of our budget," the post reads, "We're always willing to help our neighbors. But when that assistance is due to the [Mayor's] lack of proper funding for his Fire Department, it's not really fair to our own taxpayers."
Local 1555 President Edward Freitas said whenever Fairhaven responds to mutual aid calls, the department has to call people in from home to man their stations and that has an added cost for the town's department.
The city of New Bedford announced it would decommission Engine 11 in the South End in March and Freitas said shortages like that and underfunding NBFD's budget leave surrounding department's to pick up the slack.
"We end up supplementing NBFD's budget," Freitas said, "As far as mutual aid goes, the surrounding communities provide more coverage than what they receive. In fact, Fairhaven, Dartmouth and Acushnet provide more coverage than what they receive combined and then some."
But Fairhaven Fire Chief Timothy Francis said at the end of the day costs from mutual aid balance out, noting that the NBFD provided mutual aid during the Jackson's Variety fire on Sconticut Neck in February and other community's departments offer mutual aid on a weekly basis with ambulances.
"We're always depending on other communities to help us...every city and town relies on [mutual aid]," Francis said.
When asked if his department has provided more mutual aid to New Bedford this year than in the past, Francis said he wouldn't say they've provided any more than normal.
Francis did say New Bedford, as a city, has more fires than the town of Fairhaven, but that the city doesn't call them to every single fire.
Francis also said while the FFD responded provided mutual aid twice in one week, they hadn't needed to come into the city for a long time before that.
"Mutual aid is a common arrangement," New Bedford Public Information Officer Jonathan Carvalho said in an email. "The New Bedford Fire Department also provides aid to surrounding towns, including Fairhaven. New Bedford has a population of 100,000 and Fairhaven is a small town with about 15,000 residents; it is more common for larger cities to require coverage due to their larger populations and thus more frequent incidents."
Both fires Fairhaven provided mutual aid for last week were two-alarm fires.
According to Carvalho, in the event of a two-alarm fire, there will be a need for mutual aid assistance, which has been the case as far back as when the NBFD had 10 companies.
Local 841 president Billy Sylvia said New Bedford is cutting the fire department's budget to save money, all the while putting the burden on surrounding communities to spend money to help cover fires in New Bedford.
Sylvia described cuts to the fire department's budget as "passing the buck to everybody else" and said he brought up the pressure the cuts would put on surrounding department's before.
Following a general alarm fire at Sid Wainer and Son in March, Sylvia put out a statement that said when the general alarm was called it left no other fire apparatus available to respond to other emergencies in the city and other departments had to come in and cover the city as a whole.
"This action takes the issue of not having a fully operational department and shares that with the departments that come in to help while leaving their own town with less Emergency Services available," Sylvia wrote.
Freitas said during the Amanda Avenue fire on June 10 he was providing mutual aid at New Bedford Fire Department's headquarters.
"I was shocked to learn that we were covering the whole downtown area, all the way to engine 8's coverage area and we were also covering the entire South End, Buttonwood Park and up to the Dartmouth line," Freitas said, "One engine as well as a Dartmouth ladder was covering that entire area. The citizens of New Bedford were terribly unprotected during that fire."
Fire Chief Paul Coderre has said in the past that response times in the South End are still within National Standards following the decommissioning of Engine 11.
While he was providing mutual aid, Freitas said they were called to respond to a motorcycle accident and while they were initially responding to it, though they ended up being canceled by New Bedford EMS, the nearest coverage station for the South End was Downtown.
Freitas said they had one Fairhaven engine and one ladder truck from Dartmouth at station 2.
"Any fire you have, you want to have two pumpers there, we didn't have that," Freitas said, "The South End used to be covered by two pumpers and a ladder now its being covered by one pumper ... I don't think citizens understand how bad the coverage is for them right now."
When the city initially announced it would be decommissioning Engine 11 the city's CFO Ari Sky said it would cost the city $2.7 million to fully fund all 10 fire companies and the cost is beyond the city's financial means. This was before revenue loss due to the coronavirus restrictions put added pressure on the city's finances.
A public safety center is scheduled to open in the South End in spring of next year.
©2020 The Standard-Times, New Bedford, Mass.