Fire officials weigh in on MRI feasibility study
Public forum to be held next month
March 25, 2010
OSSIPEE — Chiefs from the town's three fire precincts and its precinct commissioners weighed in on MRI's Feasibility Study for Town Wide Fire Services at meeting earlier this month after a public forum on Feb. 24 was postponed due to stormy weather.
Efforts are under way to reschedule the forum to either April 20th or 22nd.
Fire Commissioner George Moynahan of the Center Ossipee Fire Precinct coordinated the meeting with the press as an opportunity for fire precinct officials to refute some of the data in the report and present their thoughts on the voluminous study released late year. Voters at town meeting sanctioned the study in 2009 at an expense of about $19,000. The meeting, held March 1 at the Center Ossipee Fire Station, included Ossipee Corner Fire Chief Adam Riley and Commissioner George Moynahan and Jim Spencer; Center Ossipee Fire Chief Mike Brownell and Commissioners Jim Dolan and Bob Freeman; and West Ossipee Fire Chief Brad Eldridge.
"There are some good things in this report," said Moynahan, a retired fire chief who headed up the Rye Fire Department for 13 years, "and I've worked with the people who did the report on occasion."
However, he has many questions about the recommendations to consolidate the fire precincts, including whether consolidation would actually save money or is even legally possible, given that the town and precincts are separate legal entities. He also questioned whether taxpayers in other precincts would shoulder the cost burden of a proposed new Ossipee Corner fire station, as recommended in the MRI study.
Dolan said he challenges the statement in the report that "communications are strained" between the town and the precincts. "I challenge that if it's on both sides. We have tried to work very closely with them. We gave them the outline for the report they eventually submitted… we gave them a draft and we wanted and expected them to communicate with us but they went ahead and changed it."
Commissioners also noted that they were not privy to minutes of a scoping meeting that selectmen held with MRI officials, where they defined the scope and perimeters of the study.
Another bone of contention, minutes of Jan. 30, 2009, was a meeting where they outlined two specific restrictions: the ambulance contract was not to be considered, regardless of the fact 60 percent of calls are ambulance related, and the assumption that a consolidation would form one "precinct" type of organization. At that meeting, Selectman Harry Merrow stated "the town did not want to take over the fire department," and we still want it run by commissioners. Dolan said he doesn't think this path is what the majority of town residents expected.
In addition, despite what some people may think, Dolan said fire officials have met several times to discuss the MRI study and all three precincts have made changes and corrections to the report. He notes there was a four-day delay between the time the town selectmen received the draft report and the time it was provided to the three fire chiefs and commission members.
"We requested a copy when the selectmen got it so we wouldn't have this four day window to evaluate it," said Dolan, adding the selectmen responded with an unsigned letter addressed to "To Whom It May Concern."
The note briefly stated that all reports from MRI would be "received and reviewed by the Board of Selectmen. The Board will then decide when the Fire Departments will receive copies of the reports."
"To me, that's rather callous and disrespectful," Dolan said. "We're another government entity just like they (select board) are. You talk about strained relations. We've been trying to work with them," he said.
Commissioner Spencer said that he, too, was surprised to read the depiction of "strained relations" between the board and the precincts. "I know two of the selectmen personally and I know they would call me up if they had questions," he said. "I just never sensed there was a problem. But that's a common theme in the report, that there is a problem with communications. They say we don't communication between the departments and the chiefs don't communicate. We dispute that," said Spencer. "We communicate when we need to," he said. Chief Brownell said the statements give the town's people an inaccurate picture of how the departments interact. "We work very well together," he added.
Chief Eldridge said that because he doesn't "broadcast" whenever he interacts with the other chiefs and vice versa, most people area unaware of the level of interaction that exists between the precincts.
"There's no bad feelings or strained relations," Spencer added.
Moynahan adds that the relations are no different than in any other town or departments, where there is always room for improvement.
Dolan said communications with the select board are a two-way street. "When there's a problem the selectmen will go to the fire chiefs and question why they aren't doing this or that." He and other were also offended by a one-page bulletin that was posted advertising the Feb. 24th forum, which read, "Open Public Hearing. Come learn about Ossipee Fire Precincts and the possible benefits of merging all three precincts into one effective Fire Department. This directly affects everyone in Ossipee and your property taxes!!!"
"You're telling all these firefighters and chiefs that we're not 'effective,' that's the irritating part," he said.
In addition, a second one-page handout titled "Fire Department Comparisons" lists the budgets and tax rates for the West Ossipee, Center Ossipee and Ossipee Corner fire precincts. It would have been fairer to include other department budgets and tax rates on this list, noted Brownell. "There's motivation behind this, and its money," he said, adding that if costs were shared that the taxes in some precincts would go down and Center Ossipee would go up.
The language in the report also suggests a merger is a "done deal" noted the commissioners.
Brownell, his own version of the MRI report flagged with dozens of yellow Post-It notes, said there are many conflicting or incongruous statements in the report, such as a suggestion to eliminate three fire engines and adding two more fire substations and a new station in Ossipee Corner. Then later on it recommends buying used fire equipment. "Well, we're going to sell something we've been maintaining and putting money into for all these years and sell it for 10 cents on a dollar? And then go out and buy used equipment that you know nothing about?" he said. Eldridge adds this is one idea that struck him as "odd."
"We don't buy used police cruisers. We don't buy used school buses and we don't buy used highway trucks. Why would we buy used fire trucks?" he questioned.
Brownell added that they have purchased used apparatus for specialty use, such as a tanker truck, and aerial devices purchased at a huge savings. The replacement cost for these three pieces would be about $2 million.
Dolan said as a layperson, he would be very disappointed if a first responder fire tanker went out to a scene with just one driver and one firefighter, with very little equipment. They can't let more people ride in that vehicle.
Brownell said the tank truck only has two seats in it. The recommendation was to cut back to one engine per precinct, to respond to all calls, and when that one engine is busy the backup would be the tanker truck from Center Ossipee. "They are recommending one engine per station which I don't think anybody in this room or anybody in the fire service in this town thinks is an acceptable solution," said Spencer.
And then there is the shear size of the precincts to contend with. Riley said his precinct is the size of the town of Freedom. Sunny Villa and the barn in Granite would be 'holes in the ground' if it weren't for the level of response to fires at those locales.
Another suggestion is to get rid of the smaller rescue trucks. Riley said recently there were a medical call and a serious car accident that tied up all three precincts' rescue trucks. "And that's not uncommon," he said, and "even though we had four pieces of apparatus at the scene we still did not have enough spill containment for that scene."
In next week's report the chief's and commissioners continue discuss of training, staffing levels and mandatory requirements.