Additional Money Ensures a Fifth Firefighter on All Shifts

October 2, 2015


by Barbara O’Brien

A few years ago, Windham Fire Chief Tom McPherson and the sitting board of selectmen, most of whom still serve in that capacity, decided that it was vital for the safety of local homeowners and businesses to have five firefighters working each shift.  Unfortunately, due to budget constraints, that has not always been the case.  As a result, the issue was brought up at a recent selectmen’s meeting by Town Administrator David Sullivan.

Sullivan reported that there have been 384 hours since the beginning of 2015 where not every shift was covered by the full contingent of five firefighters.  This issue has been complicated by medical disabilities among some firefighters, causing other firefighters to work overtime; a much more costly situation.  Sullivan said he forecasts that the fire department budget will be overspent by about $10,700 by the end of this year.

Sullivan said the cost to staff a fifth firefighter for all shifts would amount to about $20,000 more than was budgeted.  “This would resolve the problem,” Sullivan said, adding that he supports the concept.  “You’re talking only $20,000 on a $3 million budget (fire department).”

Referring to the loss of a fifth firefighter on some shifts, EMT/Firefighter Jay Moultenbrey said, “It’s like asking a baseball team to play without a short stop.”  “We’ve only had four firefighters to fill five positions,” Moultenbrey said.  “That’s the reality, right now.”

“It’s a matter of safety,” Moultenbrey continued.  “All we’re looking for is adequate staffing.”

Chief McPherson commented that the loss of the fifth firefighter “has been going on for quite a while.”  “It’s like playing Russian Roulette.”  McPherson said he is in full support of having five firefighters on duty “all the time.”

A motion by Selectman Bruce Breton to provide an additional $7,000 to the fire department’s budget to cover five firefighters for the remainder of 2015 barely passed scrutiny, however, passing by a vote of 3 to 2.  Voting in favor were Chairman Al Letizio, Jr. and Selectmen Ross McLeod and Bruce Breton.  Voting against expending the extra money to accomplish the goal were Vice Chairman Joel Desilets and Selectman Roger Hohenberger.

After the vote, Hohenberger said he believes that the Windham Fire Department is already operated safely.  “We’re already in trouble with the budget this year,” Hohenberger commented.  “Look at this next year!”  Desilets did not comment on his opposing vote.  Selectman McLeod summed up his feelings by saying, “It’s a matter of risk management.”

In other fire department business, the contract for dispatching through the Derry Fire Department was unanimously (5 to 0) extended another five years.  The extension includes an annual 5 percent increase, with the first year (2016) costing Windham approximately $99,000 and the final year (2020) totaling $121,000.  “It’s a lot cheaper than having our own staffing” here in Windham, Sullivan said.