NORTHBOROUGH – The Select Board gave its blessing for the Northborough Fire Department to apply for a SAFER grant that may lead to hiring of eight firefighters during its meeting on Dec. 4.
History of staffing
According to a memo from Fire Chief Dave Parenti to the Select Board, one of the National Fire Protection Association’s standards calls for a minimum of 15 firefighters on the initial house fire assignment. The Northborough Fire Department has automatic mutual aid agreements with surrounding towns and, with its current shift number of five personnel plus automatic response, its initial response is about 14 personnel.
According to Parenti’s presentation, in the early 1980s, the fire department had a full-time chief and two full-time day firefighters. As demand increased and call firefighters weren’t as available, there was a request for 24/7/365 coverage in the early 1990s, leading to two firefighters who worked 24-hour shifts that was supplemented by two day shift firefighters in addition to call members.
Chief David Durgin presented plans in 1999 to provide advanced life support ambulance service with a goal to have one officer and three firefighters working 24-hours a day. According to Parenti, this was achieved in 2009.
In 2002, Durgin requested an increase of six members per shift, though Parenti said the Select Board at that time determined it wasn’t needed. However, during the site plan review process for the Avalon Bay development and Northborough Crossing in 2009, Durgin’s request for six additional firefighters was approved to be funded initially through fees imposed on the builder. Parenti said the positions weren’t ever filled.
Durgin again requested an increase to on-duty staffing to one officer and seven firefighters in 2013 along with a deputy chief and fire prevention officer, leading to a public safety staffing study completed in 2015.
Parenti said the study called for one officer and four firefighters per shift for a total of five people in addition to a new fire station and deputy chief. At that time, the department only had four people per shift.
When Parenti joined the department in 2016, he said he was given the go-ahead to begin hiring. He intended to pursue a SAFER grant in 2017, though Parenti said then-Town Administrator John Coderre was unwilling to support the project. Since, Parenti said he spoke with Coderre several times about needing additional staff and submitted supplemental budget requests.
In June, the department hit a crisis point, Parenti said.
“Our members were beginning to exhibit signs of physical and mental health impacts due to the workload and as a result, we needed to adjust our daily staffing,” his presentation read.
Parenti advised then-interim Town Administrator Bob Reed that he planned to apply for a SAFER grant.
Parenti said the benefits of applying for the grant include an improvement to the firefighters’ health, wellness and safety; and an ability to respond to additional and overlapping calls, to attract and retain highly-qualified firefighters and paramedics and to collect additional ambulance fees.
What is proposed
Parenti plans to use the SAFER grant to bring on eight people, or two additional members per shift. The grant would cover 100% of salary, benefit and contractional costs for 36 months, and after that time period, the town will absorb these costs.
The grant would be worth approximately $2.7 million.
The grant window opens in February with the awards beginning between four to six months after the grants are submitted. Once awarded, there is a six-month window for hiring.
During the meeting, Select Board member Laura Ziton voiced her support for the department.
“I underestimated the pressure that staffing caused for them. I apologize that so many of those prior requests weren’t heard,” Ziton said. “The financial impact is important to me, but their health and well-being is critically important to me.”