After three months of taking a close look at Easton's fire-fighting capability, the Fire House Study Committee is almost ready to sign off on a final report on July 28.
One thing is clear: the three-member committee does not recommend closing one of three fire houses on a permanent basis in the interest of public safety.
"Our recommendation not to close a fire station at this time will allow the Fire Department to have the flexibility to complete its mission statement," according to a draft of the report.
The committee met on July 13 to provide the necessary revisions to the draft report before the next meeting on July 28.
The committee was to conduct a review of the current state of Easton's fire-fighting capability in light of , and whether to recommend permanent closure of a fire house. Its members include Selectman Sean Noonan and residents Stephen Merlin and Keith Graveline. Merlin is chairman.
"I think it has been a good process. The body (of the report) is pretty good for what we voted. We do need more elaboration," Merlin said.
According to the report's overview, "many believe that Easton is better off with three fire houses and 36 full-time firefighter/paramedics than the lesser number. Although this may be true, the essential question to the committee is whether and under what conditions the town could provide adequate public safety with two fire houses and 32 firefighter/paramedics. The selectmen do not expect that this committee will produce a detailed solution."
The committee confined itself to the review of existing information about Easton and surrounding towns. The report also relies on input from , firefighters, and town financial officers.
"The study committee report should, in a straightforward manner, recommend whether it is possible, and based on the existing information, to adequately protect the public safety of the town with two fire houses and a complement of firefighter/paramedics of fewer than 36. The report should also include steps the town should take, and identify any additional information the town may need," the draft report states.
The committee was given four tasks:
- Should the town move to permanently reduce the number of fire houses to two? Or should the town continue to operate one fire house part time and work towards the eventual restoration of a full complement of staff?
- What number of fire personnel sholuld be deployed to staff two fire houses if the town permanently reduces the number of active fire houses to two?
- Which location should be closed?
- Are the two remaining locations appropriate? If not, generally speaking, what alternative locations would produce adequate results?
"In these turbulent economic times municipalities will be faced with difficult choices. Finding the balance between what is needed and what a town can afford is the crux of what this committee has looked into. While the committee has spent three months compiling data, interviewing town and fire department personnel, and asking for public input, the committee feels we have done a thorough job of looking at all the aspects for which this committee was charged," the draft report adds.
The report referred to a study that was done in 1998, and suggests that the town "kicked the can down the road" and did not address the problems at the appropriate time.
"Now, 13 years later, the town faces the same issue as it did back then. As we discovered, this was manpower versus resources. To adequately use the resources the town requires proper manpower coverage. It is also evident that all surrounding communities are faced with the same issues," the draft report said.
Based on the information compiled by the committee, and because of the locations of the existing three fire houses, "closing a fire house on a permanent basis is not recommended at this time."
Stone said that on June 10 the department closed part time the Depot Street fire house due to a shortage of staff. He said a minimum of seven firefighters is needed to man the station, and the current budget of $2.8 million does not support that level of manpower. The department also has spent $65,000 in federal stimulus grant money, and is now grappling with a $150,000 budget deficit, the chief said.
The study committee based its recommendation not to close a fire house on a permanent basis on two critical factors: response time of all fire, non-emergency medical services, and emergency medical services "are within reasonable industry benchmarks."
"The 1998 study study provides analysis that incidates 'that response time from a three-station configuration is better than from a two-station configuration. For a two-station configuration to work in this town the locations of these two stations should be in different locations from the current setup."
In addition, based on the 2010 annual town report, the committee believes the fire chief is the appropriate person to put his resources to use through the budget process.
"Since our recommendation at this time is not to close a fire station it makes the other three tasks given to the committee irrelevent. Having said that we do have other recommendations related to the future of (the) Fire and Rescue Department."
However, the study committee said it is clear that "even with a three-station configuration we are not up to the standards of the National Fire Protections Association. This is particularly of concern because the evidence presented to us indicates that a fire doubles in size every minute."
Study committee members noted that in a three-station configuration the department meets industry standards only 50 percent of the time. In a two-station configuration, the benchmark would be only 33 percent.
"Accordingly, it makes no sense to us to have a situation with the town having a two-station configuration."
The study committee, in its draft report, recommends the town request from the Insurance Services Organization a new survey to determine the public protection classification. "The last survey was done in 2002 and the town received a rating of 4 but bordering on a 5 which could affect insurance premiums for residential and commercial properties. A 1 on the survey is the best result, 10 being the worst.
"By classifying a community's ability to suppress fires, ISO helps the communities evaluate their public fire-protection services. The program provides an objective, countrywide standard that helps fire departments in planning and budgeting for facilities, equipment, and training," the study committee said in the draft report.
Second, the committee recommends the town "take off the shelf the 1998 study to begin addressing the 21st century needs of our Fire and Rescue Department. Because all municipalities are facing budgetary constraints, the issue should not be 'kicked down the road' any longer."
The study committee also recommends that if a new fire station were to be built, ideally, it would be located on Route 138 near major development.
Other key recommendations include:
- Locating by way of grants or capital budgets a way of finding resources to upgrade fire vehicles to higher standards. "The community has discovered that if a fire truck is the fire to respond to a medical emergency, even if these firefighters are trained as paramedics, that without such equipment they are hampered in providing critical emergency services."
- That town budget officials review the financial data provided to the community by the town accountant. "Those figures i.e. the cost, exclusive of personnel, of maintaining each of the current three fire stations."
- That appropriate town officials review and determine what should be considered adequate staffing patters for the Fire and Rescue Department. "We further recommend that prior to the next collective bargaining contract that a thorough review be made of vacation, personal day time official policies."