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Objectives set at first fire committee meeting

November 25, 2009
NORTHFIELD — The first meeting of the Fire Services Review Committee left its nine members with a better understanding of the information they need to compile to determine whether Northfield would be better off financially if it formed its own fire department.

To start the organizational meeting, Board of Selectmen Chair Deb Shepard was elected chair of the committee, while Selectman Steve Bluhm was elected vice chair and Gretchen Wilder was elected clerk.

Shepard said the main goal of the committee is to get information out to voters as to whether it's more feasible to stay with the district or break off.

"We have good service in Northfield - no one's saying that we don't," Shepard said.

Northfield would get 38 percent of the district's assets should a 2/3 district majority decide to break off.

Like he had at a recent selectmen meeting, Bluhm presented data to demonstrate Northfield's costs in relation to similar towns.

The Tilton-Northfield Fire Department averages around 500 calls for Northfield, and Bluhm said the town paid a little more than $561,000 this year for its services. Based on very rough calculations using proposed plans that the fire district is looking into, Bluhm estimates that the annual cost will jump to approximately $836,000 in the next five years or so.

The numbers he used included $900,000 to renovate the Park Street station, for which Chief Stephen Carrier has put in a grant; at least $500,000 for land if the district decided to share a life safety building with the Tilton Police Department; an unknown sum for the life safety building (the Municipal Resources Inc. report suggested a figure of $1.8 million); $210,000 for the three new firefighters/EMTs the district is asking for; and money for a couple other new positions as well.

"We're going to go from $531,000 to $836,000 in a matter of a few years," Bluhm said. "That's basically why Northfield selectmen said we at least have to look into it."

Bluhm presented data comparing Northfield's numbers to similar towns. Alton, which gets averages more than 200 more calls than Northfield, pays $320,720 for fire services. Auburn gets approximately the same number of calls as Northfield and pays $355,580 for fire services and $46,000 for ambulance services.

Bluhm admitted he didn't have all the details on any of the towns he looked at, as most of the information was pulled from town Web sites. One of the tasks the committee will work on in the next few months is compiling more solid data.

"I think our goal is to pull the data, lay the cards on the table, see if it's viable," board member Gretchen Wilder said. "I don't think anybody at this table wants to cut our nose off. (There's) no sense breaking off if it's not viable."

Shepard suggested breaking into focus groups. One would compile the staffing and budgetary data by calling or visiting other towns; one would work on what a budget for a Northfield Fire Department would look like; and one would determine what type of equipment and staffing the department would need.

There was some debate as to whether it would be possible to service the town with an all on-call staff. Before TNFD started 24/7 coverage, it had 49 on-call firefighters something the committee agreed would probably be unlikely these days.

"That was a different generation, and you don't have that anymore," committee member Charlie Harris said.

The committee also talked about whether firefighters living in Northfield would be willing to be on-call for Northfield, and that it would be important to keep a working relationship with Tilton.

"My community is Tilton, Northfield, Sanbornton," Wilder said. "I don't think that if the district does separate, I don't think that's going to draw a line in the sand."

The committee discussed putting out press releases and contacting technical schools and the state Fire Academy so they'll be able to project approximately how many firefighters they could get on an on-call roster.

Regardless of which way the committee leans, all agreed that the number one priority is safety, and that sacrificing safety to save money is not their intent.

"We have a moral obligation to provide a safe fire (and) ambulance service to the community," said Harris.

If the committee wants to put forth a warrant article for town meeting in March, it needs to present a draft in January. Bluhm said the warrant can set a date for the future so that if they do break off, there will be time allotted to train or retrain firefighters and get the department set up.

The committee plans to meet weekly.

Martin Lord and Osman
Salmon Press
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