By Dan Miller, Contributing Writer
WESTBOROUGH – The Westborough Fire Department says it is in a race to keep up with rapidly rising emergency response calls. And the department is losing.
To combat the increased workload, the department wants to apply for a federal grant that would pay the first three years of the cost of adding four new firefighter/paramedics.
Following a presentation by Chief Patrick Purcell, the Westborough Select Board voted 5-0 on Jan. 11 to write a letter of support in favor of the department’s grant application to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
Residents to get final say on grant
The final decision whether to go forward with the grant will be made by residents during Westborough’s fall town meeting.
Purcell said the grant proposal will not be ready in time for the upcoming spring town meeting.
The department previously used the FEMA’s Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant to add eight firefighters back in 2018. That was based on recommendations made by a consulting firm analyzing the department’s staffing and leadership.
That three-year grant had FEMA covering 75 percent of the cost of the new firefighters in the first two years, with Westborough picking up 65 percent of the cost in year three.
The grant has since expired, meaning Westborough taxpayers are now paying the full tab of about $100,000 in salary and benefits for each of the eight firefighters.
The consulting firm also proposed the department add four more firefighters by July 2025, which Purcell said can be accomplished by the department applying for another SAFER grant.
Call volumes increase
Emergency response calls have steadily risen year over year since 2010, when the department responded to about 2,600 calls. It responded to 4,693 calls in 2021, according to Purcell.
The ratio of about 65 percent of calls for emergency medical service and 35 percent for fires and rescues has remained the same, with the number of both types of calls growing.
Calls have kept increasing during the pandemic even as office parks throughout Westborough have been all but empty, Purcell said.
He predicted calls will exceed 5,000 a year once people start returning to these spaces as the pandemic eases.
“We do a lot of bad accidents,” besides calls to businesses and residents, Purcell said.
He also cited the impact of new residential developments like the Del Webb Chauncy Lake project, which will eventually total 700 units.
Select Board responds to presentation
The new SAFER grant would have FEMA paying 100 percent of salaries and benefits for four new firefighters in each of the first three years.
That sweetened the deal for Select Board member Ian Johnson, who said that paying just part of the cost for new firefighters would be a hard sell this year, with Westborough taxpayers facing an unusually large tax increase in the 2023 fiscal year.
“You would be remiss if you didn’t bring this to us,” Johnson told Purcell. “We know we need it. You’ve proven that to us.”
No one disputed the need for more firefighters. But taxpayers need to know what they are getting into if they support the grant application this fall, said member Patrick Welch.
“We’re not going to get rid of these positions after year three, four, five, 10, right? These will be ongoing on the books probably forever, and this is where our taxes go up,” Welch said.
Not going after the grant won’t make the challenge go away, countered Purcell. Call numbers will keep going up as long as new development continues.
“It’s public safety and I have a service to provide,” Purcell said, adding he must also take care of his staff to avoid burnout
“That will cause retention issues, and that is costly also,” he said of burnout.
After the first three years of the grant, Purcell estimated the four new firefighters will add about $50 a year to the tax bill of the average Westborough resident, based on the town’s experience with its first SAFER grant.