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Northfield may break from fire district


November 04, 2009
NORTHFIELD — Selectmen in Northfield voted on Oct. 27 to form a committee for the purpose of studying the fire protection needs of the town.

The Fire Services Committee will be comprised of the three selectmen and six other residents who are willing to serve on the investigational committee.

While saying that he still believes in the fire district, Selectman Steve Bluhm said that it is in Northfield's best interest to study the matter of fire services and determine what direction they go move toward to serve the town and its residents most effectively. Under consideration is the possible withdrawal from the Tilton-Northfield Fire District and the formation of an independent fire department for the town.

"This is about our ability to see what's best for Northfield and to investigate all the possibilities," he said. "Then we can tell our taxpayers 'This is best.' It's not personal; we just have to find out if this is the way we should go."

Selectmen have been concerned abut the rising costs of the fire district and, in light of what appears to be an upcoming recommendation from Tilton to build a Life Safety Complex to include the fire department, they felt it important to do their own study and see if there are less costly alternatives available.

Chairman Debra Shepard said the time had come to look at options.

"We have no problem with the service of the fire district. Other towns that are similar in size, population and call volume spend significantly less though. So, when do you step back and say, 'Wait a minute - you're spending more than you should?'"

Shepard said she sees this as a proactive step for Northfield, and they are not looking to diminish safety in the town.

Taxpayers will be footing a $561,794 bill for the fire district in the upcoming year, a $99,470 increase over last year. Tilton, which currently pays for 61 percent of the fire district's costs, will see a similar increase of just over $95,000. Northfield believes they could possibly spend their money differently by creating a fire department of their own.

The possibility of a volunteer or a combination volunteer/call fire department will be considered by the new committee. They will be asked to investigate what it would take to get Northfield to that point, should findings lead them to a withdrawal from the jointly run district. Legal issues involved in a possible withdrawal, budget requirements, staffing, recruitment, training and equipment needs will also be determined by the committee. Emergency medical services will also have to be considered if Northfield branches out on its own. Bluhm and Shepard said that a contract with a private ambulance service is one option to be examined.

Information gathered through the Fire Services Committee will be presented as a warrant to Northfield taxpayers in March for their final decision. Should it become necessary to look further into the matter, the life of the committee could be extended by the selectmen beyond Town Meeting.

Fire Commissioner Tom Gallant was open to the formation of the Northfield committee. Gallant has been involved in the Fire District since the 1980's and has watched its transition through the years from a volunteer department to a call department, and eventually to the 24/7 professional and call services now rendered to the two towns. While he questioned the ability of Northfield to find adequate staffing for a volunteer fire department, he said he respected their right to look at the options available.

"This has been bantered around for a long time. It's about time it was studied," he said.

Gallant was instrumental in the formation of the district's own Comprehensive Facilities Review Committee, the panel looking at what the future needs of the district may be in the next 10 years. Tilton has their own Life Safety Building Committee studying a possible joint Tilton Police Department and fire station for Tilton-Northfield. Northfield's Fire Services Committee will now look at Northfield's own needs for fire and medical services.

In response to an email sent by the Town of Northfield, Fire Commission Chair Kevin Waldron said that Chief Stephen Carrier would be available to answer any questions the Fire Services Committee may have about the fire department. Legal Government Center had already made the determination that the chief is legally able to discuss district fire needs with Tilton's LSBC; therefore, Waldron wrote, the same option will be available to Northfield's committee. Calls to Waldron for further comment on the matter were unanswered.

As of Tuesday morning, Shepard said that a few more volunteers may be needed for the committee. Anyone willing to offer their time for this study is asked to contact Town Administrator Glenn Smith at 286-7039 or email gsmith@northfieldnh.org. A schedule will be set for the committee to begin their investigation and minutes of these meetings will be available to those interested in following their progress. Meetings will also be open for the public to attend.

"If this comes about, it will definitely change everything," Tilton Board of Selectmen Chair Katherine Dawson said last week in response to Northfield's letter informing Tilton of the committee.

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