Selectmen at odds over need for more firefighters

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By Patrick Cronin

Hampton Union, Friday, March 5, 2010

[The following article is courtesy of the Hampton Union and Seacoast Online.]

A scene from the aftermath of a five-alarm blaze that destroyed a block of Hampton Beach businesses on Thursday night, Feb. 25, 2010.
[Rich Beauchesne photo]

HAMPTON -- Selectmen were criticized this week for past budgetary decisions that some say may have played a role in the ultimate outcome of last week's five-alarm fire that leveled a block of businesses at Hampton Beach.

Mary-Louise Woolsey, chairman of the town's Budget Committee, said the selectmen's decision to continue to slash the Fire Department's budget over the years has put this town in jeopardy.

"There is nothing more important to a community than protection of life and property." Woolsey said. "How much of that beach are we going to let burn until we wake up and properly equip that Fire Department?"

Her comments came on the heels of Hampton Fire Chief Chris Silver telling selectmen that a lack of manpower and major equipment failures hindered initial attempts to douse the blaze that erupted inside the Surf Motel late Thursday, Feb. 25.

Silver said the department had only eight firefighters on duty the night of the fire rather than the nine they had prior to major budget cuts in 2005. Also during the night of the fire, crews were forced to vacate the beach fire station and relocate to the Winnacunnet Road facility, over a mile away, because of a power outage.

A 40-year-old generator in the beach station failed, an override mechanism to the electric doors also did not work trapping a pumper truck, that could have been used to fight the Ocean Boulevard fire, inside.

Silver said had the department had a quicker response time and enough men at the scene initially, they may have been able to douse the fire before it spread.

He credited mutual aid, consisting of over 160 firefighters, for limited the damage to the block. He said once the fire started to spread, pushed by hurricane-force winds, it could have taken down the entire beach front.

Selectmen Chairman Rick Griffin disagreed with the chief. He said even if the Fire Department had more manpower and no equipment failed that night, he doesn't believe it would have made a difference in the ultimate outcome.

"You can't staff for what occurred that night," Griffin said. "I have lived here all my life, and I have never seen 95-mph winds."

Silver said initial responders arrived approximately five minutes after they were alerted to the fire because all crews were out on other calls.

When the first engine arrived, the crew of three firefighters conducted a search, but had to wait an additional five minutes for other crews to arrive. A crew of four, he said, is needed to safely move a hose line.

Griffin said he was dismayed by the chief's comments and accused Silver of trying politicize a tragedy.

Selectmen Bill Lally, however, said that is not what the chief is doing.

"He is doing the best with what he has, and he doesn't have what he should have," Lally said. "The chief was just stating the facts."

Lally said the chief was correct when he said the department doesn't have enough manpower.

Earlier this year, selectmen slashed an additional $150,000 in overtime from the Fire Department budget resulting in the necessity of having to drop down to seven firefighters per shift occasionally. The effort was done in order to keep taxes level, the selectmen noted.

"We whistle pass the graveyard every time we make a decision like that," Lally said. "We do it with fingers crossed, legs crossed, and we just hope nothing bad happens.

"We made a consorted effort this year to keep taxes as level as possible," he said. "We did and something like this happens."

Selectman Richard Bateman said this latest beach fire shows the town can not gamble, especially when it comes to public safety manpower and equipment needs.

"I believe there needs to be a full compliment of people at all times," Bateman said. "Shortchanging that is shortchanging the public. We gambled, and you can see the rubble."

The chief said he would ideally like to staff his department with 15 on-duty firefighters at all times to assure an adequate initial response. Realizing, the town could not meet the budgetary requirements of such a demand, he would settle to have at least nine on-duty firefighters ready to roll at any given time.

Last year the town voted to restore four firefighter positions that were eliminated in 2005, however, that did not bring the force back up to the nine-person shifts it had before 2005. Instead, the firefighters were used to fill vacancies — whether it was for sick leave or vacations — rather than bringing a firefighter in on an overtime basis.

Bateman said it was an embarrassment to the town that the department couldn't get the pumper out of the beach fire station because of generator and door problems.

He noted the pumper could have been manned and it would have been another piece of apparatus available to firefighters during the fire.

"The fire station at the beach is essential to protecting the town of Hampton," Bateman said. "The fact is that it's been neglected for lengthy period of time. There are so many things that should have been done and put off."

Over the years the town has poured as little money as possible into the building with hopes that a new station would be constructed. The projects that were done include patching the roof because of termites, removing mold because of flooding and building a substation within the station to deal with toxic lead paint in order to keep the station open.

Lally said the board tried to make headway regarding a beach fire station last year by selecting a location to build it. The Hampton Beach Village Precinct, which owns the land, however, has been hesitant to sign off on it.

"We tried to work with them, but for one reason or another, there seems to be an us-versus-them mentality," said Lally. "We need to all start working together."

Hampton firefighters, with the help from 40 Seacoast fire departments, vigorously battled the blaze that erupted in the Surf motel close to midnight Thursday, and was fueled by 75-mph winds from a Nor'easter. When it was brought under control early Friday morning, the motel, Happy Hampton Arcade, Mrs. Mitchell's souvenir shop and two other properties determined to be a total loss.

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