By Jonathan Phelps
---- — WENHAM — A study looking into the needs of the Fire Department calls for increasing the chief’s job to full time and hiring another full-time firefighter.
While praising the town’s on-call firefighters, fire Chief Robert Blanchard, a member of the study committee, said the department is facing many challenges. Right now, Fire Prevention Officer Jeff Baxter is the department’s only full-time employee. The chief works 30 hours a week.
The department relies on 27 call firefighters, who either work part-time shifts or respond when an emergency arises. But the availability and number of on-call firefighters have been declining in recent years, the chief said.
Blanchard said many of them live and work outside town, while others have professional commitments that limit their availability.
“Our biggest concern is our response time is getting longer, and the number of on-call responders continues to drop,” Blanchard said.
There is also concern about the fire station not being staffed during some peak hours and holidays, according to the study.
The study group was formed after last year’s annual Town Meeting to look into possible changes. The group was made up of Blanchard, interim Town Administrator Mark Andrews, Selectman Ken Whittaker, and Finance and Advisory Committee member Michael Lucy.
“We looked at a number of different ways to address the crux of the issues,” Andrews said. The study included research into the department’s current model and fire departments in surrounding communities.
The report was presented at the selectmen’s meeting this week.
The group unanimously recommended adding another full-time firefighter, increasing the chief to full time, and developing shifts for call firefighters to maximize station coverage, especially during late afternoon and early evening.
Blanchard said the recommendation will enhance the town’s current model and is “no reflection on the work of the on-call firefighters.”
Options to make the department full time and merge with Hamilton’s Fire Department were also explored. The group determined that a merger with Hamilton would not address the town’s immediate needs, but the idea should be looked into further, Andrews said.
Andrews said the proposed changes would cost the town about $113,000, bringing the department’s budget total to $614,000.
It is recommended that the move be paid for with recurring revenue, including $40,000 in savings from joining the regional dispatch center, $35,000 from a payment in lieu of taxes from Gordon College and an expected $20,000 from the Penguin Hall development.
“We are looking at keeping our fiscal impact as low as possible, while providing this new hybrid level of service,” Andrews said.
A full-time department, including at least three firefighters 24 hours a day, would cost the town about $1 million to operate each year, according to the group.
Andrews said the proposal to add a firefighter and increase the chief’s hours has been included in his preliminary budget for next fiscal year, which residents will vote on at Town Meeting on April 6.