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Northfield selectmen make their case for fire service study

Northfield Selectman Steve Bluhm holds up a poster of fire service costs in Auburn, a town with similar size and call volume as Northfield. Donna Rhodes. (click for larger version)

Northfield Selectman Steve Bluhm holds up a poster of fire service costs in Auburn, a town with similar size and call volume as Northfield. Donna Rhodes. (click for larger version)
November 11, 2009
NORTHFIELD — While Northfield selectmen may have been looking for more residents at their Nov. 3 meeting, most of those on hand expressed their support in forming a Fires Services Review Committee.

The three board members voted on Oct. 27 to form the committee to look at what measures the town could take that would keep fire and EMS costs down while still maintaining the safety and standards they currently receive through the Tilton-Northfield Fire District. A $99,470 increase in the Northfield portion of the district's expenses prompted the decision. The town will pay TNFD $561,794 in the next year.

"This is not a vote to disband the district. It's a vote to look at other towns our size and see what they do for fire services," said Selectman Steve Bluhm.

To demonstrate his point, Bluhm had prepared posters of information he took from Web sites for Alton and Auburn. Both had populations and call volumes similar to Northfield in 2008. Alton maintains a part-time chief and deputy chief, a full-time secretary and a volunteer fire department. Ambulance costs for the lakeside town are zero as the money to operate an ambulance service is derived through direct billing. Total operating costs to taxpayers in Alton was $320,720 in 2008.

In Auburn, a call fire company is run by a part-time chief and two full-time firefighters who work 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. The remaining time is covered by the call company. Ambulance services cost the town $46,000 each year for private coverage, with a total of $401,580 billed to taxpayers last year.

Other towns Bluhm looked at were Jaffrey, New Ipswich, Nottingham and New Boston. This type of data, he said, was readily available on the Internet and would make a good starting point for a committee as performs a more in depth study.

"I'm not saying this is the right thing or wrong thing to do," he said about the measure, "but the town should look into it."

Resident Dave Liberatore spoke up to praise the selectmen for their decision to form an investigative committee.

"You'd be doing is a disservice if you didn't look into this," he told them after hearing fire service costs in the other towns.

Retired firefighter Ron Huckins cautioned the board that there were many things to look at when starting a fire department. Training, certifications and budget costs would need to be examined as well as future growth potential in the town.

Bluhm, along with fellow selectmen Deb Shepard and Jamie Knowlton, agreed that a budget would be the first crucial step for the committee to study.

"Even if it costs more the first year or two, if it balances out to $400,000 instead, it might be worth it," Shepard said.

Northfield owns approximately one-third of the district's assets, money that could be used to develop a fire department in Northfield. Shepard added that proposals made by some commissioners to add sleeping quarters, offices and a basement at the Park Street station in Northfield made this the time for a study to be done.

"Once they start building, we're locked in. There'll be no getting out then," said Shepard.

Matthew Auger, a call fire fighter and son of Commissioner Paul Auger, was against the formation of a Northfield Fire Department.

"Why do we want to go backwards when we have guys in downtown Tilton right now who can be at a fire in three to five minutes?" he asked. "Why give up something good for something bad?"

He also questioned where the town would find enough volunteers to man the department. Commending response times of the Tilton-Northfield firefighters, he continued to stress that going from a professional fire department back to a volunteer department once again would decrease the protection the town has come to know.

"We're not trying to downgrade service to save money," Knowlton replied. "Can we maintain the same service and meet the needs of Northfield ourselves? Maybe it will work, maybe it won't. That's what we want to look into."

Bluhm said that most calls in Northfield were handled by the call firefighters of TNFD. While there are two full-time firefighters on duty who do an excellent job, he said there are often back-to-back calls coming in to the department and the call personnel handle many of those calls. Again, he stressed, this is all part of what the committee will study.

As Tilton looks into a life safety complex and the fire district wrangles with future plans of their own, Northfield should take the opportunity to see what would work best for its own residents, the selectmen said.

Knowlton said he felt given the rate fire service costs were already rising, the construction of a life safety building in Tilton would only bring greater financial burden to the Town of Northfield.

"Looking five years down the road, will Northfield feel any benefit from that? No. I'm afraid people won't be able to afford to live here soon. We need to say 'Yes, we have another option' or 'No, we don't'," he said.

Selectmen noted that Tilton and Northfield had grown into two completely different towns with the development at Exit 20 and along the Route 3 corridor. While Northfield remains a more rural residential town, Tilton has become much more commercial with different fire service needs.

As some in attendance signed on to volunteer their time to the committee, selectmen pushed the deadline to sign up for the committee back another week. They would like to encourage Northfield residents from all walks of life to take part. Businessmen, finance people and those with firefighting experience are especially sought for their input on budgets and needs of a fire department. Anyone willing to volunteer is urged to contact Town Administrator Glenn Smith at 286-7039 or email gsmith@northfieldnh.org.

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