Amherst firefighters still waiting for boost in ranks

  • Amherst Town Hall.

Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 12, 2019

AMHERST — As Amherst officials begin preparing new budgets for the town, schools and libraries for fiscal year 2021, advocates are pushing for increasing the number of full-time firefighter/paramedics.

During a recent budget forum, David Clooney, an Amherst firefighter/paramedic for 20 years, told the Town Council that the minimum staffing for the permanent force, which has been seven since 1992, needs to be increased to avoid situations where fire engines are responding to fires with only one person on board.

Multiple reports, including one from The Carlson Group of Andover two years ago, recommended adding two full-time firefighter/paramedics, but this has yet to be done, which Clooney said has created frustration for his colleagues.

“I have never in my entire career seen the level of despondency amongst the staff that we’re currently experiencing,” Clooney said.

Appeals for added staffing were also made by relatives of current and former firefighters.

Bonnie MacCracken, the mother of Fire Capt. Christopher Bascomb, said she worries when several other communities need to be called in to assist Amherst with fire and medical responses.

“We need to increase our fire department,” MacCracken said.

Dawn Schabacker, the daughter of late longtime firefighter Walter Hoffman, said there are risks to depending on ambulances that may have to cross the Coolidge Bridge.

“These men and women need to be taken care of,” Schabacker said.

Town Manager Paul Bockelman said Tuesday that department heads are currently identifying needs for additional staff and that a focus will be on what can be done for the Fire Department.

“That would be the top thing we’d be looking at,” Bockelman said.

He said the town is well set up to do this, with the fire staffing study by Carlson and more than a year in medical calls being reduced by about 1,000, or 20 percent of the volume, after Hadley opted to have its own private ambulance service.

In addition, in the most recent contract agreement with the fire union, the town negotiated the creation of a “day shift” in which some firefighter/ paramedics would work a different schedule than others who work 24-hour shifts.

The Carlson study recommended getting to nine full-time staff on at all times by adding to what was then a 46-member department.

The discussion of fire staffing came after a meeting on financial indicators for the town.

Bockelman told the councilors, School Committee members and trustees for the Jones Library that the key takeaways are that the town is in strong financial condition and has excellent financial systems, but has to make substantial capital investments and understand the pressure on taxpayers to live in town and pay their tax bills.

The outlook is clouded by what might happen with the national economy, which is showing signs of slowing down and a potential recession that could mean fewer building permits and lower excise taxes collected from purchasers of new vehicles.

Bockelman said the guidance he is giving department heads is to increase budgets by only 2½ percent.

But he noted that it is still early, with his budget not due to the Town Council until May 1, and there are a lot of unknowns, such as how much much economic growth and state aid to expect, along with an unsettled contract with the Service Employees International Union Local 888.

District 2 Councilor Pat DeAngelis said one of her concerns is reliance on part-time employees at the Jones Library, many who don’t get benefits such as health insurance.

“I feel like we’re Walmart, and that really bothers me, that we’re running the library like Walmart,” DeAngelis said.

Bockelman said, however, that offering health insurance and benefits to part-time workers would mean layoffs.

Library Director Sharon Sharry said would like to turn three part-time positions into one full timer and that the Jones Library budget would need a larger appropriation from the town to be able to do this.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.