Bonnie MacCracken: Help for fire department is needed

Thursday, January 21, 2021

During a recent meeting of the Amherst Town Council, a town councilor stated, “we have a massive deficit of housing.”

While I agree our town lacks diversity in its housing stock, I do not agree with how the council is moving forward without first providing the infrastructure to support an increase in our population. Before the council begins changing our zoning bylaws, to allow for an increase in housing units and rectifying what they view as a “massive deficit of housing,” they need to look first at another life-and-death deficit growing in our community.

This growing life-and-death deficit is our underfunded and understaffed Amherst Fire Department (AFD), always on call to provide emergency services. Our town is presently served by only 45 firefighter/paramedics. Not counting our fire chief and two assistant chiefs, this breaks down into a ratio of approximately 1.12 firefighters per 1,000 residents.

This ratio is one of the lowest in Massachusetts and is deemed to be a risk to public safety. This risk has only become more dire with the COVID-19 pandemic. The ratio of firefighter/paramedics in Northampton is 2.46 to every 1,000 residents.

In 2019, our firefighter/paramedics answered 5,775 calls, or a total of 128 calls per firefighter. During this same year, the Northampton Fire Department responded to 7,394 calls, or 106 calls per firefighter.

Our fire department’s budget and personnel are already stretched too thin and are expected to do more with less. Northampton’s Fire Department annual budget is $6.3 million, for a population of approximately 28,000. The AFD budget is substantially less — $4.2 million — for a population substantially greater, reported by the U.S. Census, as approximately 37,000.

Now our town councilors are moving to accelerate the growth in Amherst’s population, with no provision for the infrastructure needed to care for our growing community. Even aside from the pandemic, Amherst’s need for more firefighter/paramedics is pressing. Increasing the Fire Department’s annual budget, prior to increasing housing units, would enable it to make up this deficit in human “infrastructure.”

Until Town Council allocates more funding for our fire department, our safety is being jeopardized.

Bonnie MacCracken