WHITMAN — Voters at Monday’s annual Town Meeting supported Fire Chief Timothy Grenno’s Article 23 proposal to raise and appropriate $310,000 outside the levy limit to fund the salary cost of hiring three new firefighter/paramedics for Whitman Fire-Rescue.
The article, on which the Finance Committee was divided, also transferred $20,000 from the reserve from appropriation ambulance account to equip the new personnel. Voters at the May 20 annual Town Election will have the final say. Two years ago, Grenno had asked for eight additional firefighters, but the department did not receive the grant funding sought to pay a portion of that effort.
While Grenno expressed optimism on the chances it would pass, he said he is prepared to work hard to convince voters of the need.
“The Town Meeting voters have always supported the public safety departments in Whitman, hands-down,” Grenno said after the meeting adjourned. “The ballot box is a different question. It’s a tough budget time, on family budgets as well. … But I’m going to get out there and educate the people.”
He plans on using every communication avenue open to him, from social media and cable access TV to meetings with different groups in town to “get the facts out there.”
“I think, when I present the facts and show the taxpayers what goes on within the four walls of Whitman Fire-Rescue, and how it’s almost impossible to cover the emergency call volume that we have, I think that they’ll be sympathetic to us and understand that this is a real need and that we’re not crying wolf.”
Police Chief Scott Benton pledged to add his support.
“From a public safety standpoint I obviously support it,” Benton said. “I thought he did a great job. It was a great presentation — he definitely made his case.”
Benton added he not only respects Grenno as a fire chief, and considers him a friend, he said Grenno does an outstanding job in advocating for his men and the people of Whitman.
“I absolutely support what he is doing,” Benton said. “I hope the townspeople will fund it.”
Grenno provided the same PowerPoint presentation to Town Meeting voters that he gave before the Board of Selectmen a few weeks ago. The Whitman Fire Department became a full-time service in 1965 with five members per shift. In 1973, with an ambulance service added to the department, staffing levels remained at five per shift, where they remain today. The goal is to add one firefighter per shift, Grenno said.
“We need six people per shift,” he said.
In 1965 call volume for both fire and medical emergencies was 496 runs during the year. Last year, call volume was up to 2,664 runs. Medical emergencies make up 64 percent of all responses.
When calls come in, priority EMS calls — chest pain, shortness of breath, seizures and overdoses, for example — all five firefighters on a shift respond. For non-priority first calls — such as orthopedic cases — three firefighters respond, leaving two and possibly a shift commander to respond to subsequent calls, Grenno explained.
Based on a one-room fire, a three-person engine response has a 38-percent effectiveness rating. That increases to 65 percent for a four-person company and 100 percent for five responding firefighters or more.
Last year, the fire station was empty 18 percent of the time due to call volume, with subsequent calls dependent on mutual aid, which helps but takes from 20 minutes to an hour to get to a call.
Grenno received backing at Town Meeting from Finance Committee Vice Chairman Randy LaMattina, residents Tom Evans, Richard MacKinnon and Neil Gorman as well as state Rep. Geoff Diehl, R-Whitman, spoke in favor of the article. Finance Committee Chairman Michael Minchello, meanwhile, said he was not against the need for more staffing, but sought an alternative view on how to tighten the budget, arguing the presentation does not reduce overtime costs.
“You can arrive at a fire scene in the newest fire truck, the shiniest fire truck, but it’s when you get off … the manpower at that scene is what matters,” said LaMattina.
“Every citizen is going to benefit by this,” Evans said. “It’s a matter of life and death.”
MacKinnon, president of the Professional Firefighters of Massachusetts, also endorsed the override.
“We’re grossly understaffed in Whitman,” the Washington Street resident and Whitman firefighter said. “I urge the town members here to at least put it to an override.”
Court Street resident Gorman, told of a brother in “a different town” who died from smoke inhalation in a four-alarm fire a year ago.
“This is people’s lives,” he said, noting that he later discovered that an engine could not respond to the fire at his brother’s house because of staffing issues in that town’s fire department.
“I agree this needs to go to the town for a vote,” Diehl said, noting federal and state changes to the amount of revenue an ambulance department can generate as well as how certain medical cases are transported.