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Burn rate

It's not just Lawrence that's losing firefighters and relying on neighboring towns for mutual aid. Across Massachusetts, departments are shrinking due to budget cuts. In an age of austerity, is the public still safe?

By Jay Atkinson
November 14, 2010

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It’s a working fire. A large aluminum shed on a ramshackle former agricultural complex in Methuen is spouting black smoke and ragged tongues of flame. The city’s Ladder 1 is parked beyond a rusted security fence, its extended ladder supporting two firefighters who are throwing a broad stream of water down into the burning hulk. Crews on Engine 3 and Engine 5, flanking the ladder truck, attack the flames with high-powered deck guns. Inside the perimeter, three more firefighters in their helmets and gear approach the blazing shed via the skeleton of an adjacent greenhouse, scattering heaps of flaming junk with the force of the water shooting through their hand line.

“If anyone’s in there, they’re already dead,” says Lieutenant Sandy Cunha, 44, as a squad of firefighters emerges from the dirigible of smoke hovering over the shed.

On an overcast Sunday morning in August, 23 Methuen firefighters and the department’s chief, Steven Buote, are putting water on the two-alarm blaze at the abandoned Loosigian Farms on Route 110 beside the Merrimack River. The shed turns out to be empty, and after two hours of intense effort, the fire is extinguished without any injuries to personnel or damage to equipment. But an otherwise routine fire has a palpable significance. Because nearly all of Methuen’s manpower and apparatus are engaged here, mutual aid has been summoned from the fire departments of Salem, New Hampshire, Dracut, and, most significantly, the beleaguered city of Lawrence.

An engine and three firefighters from Lawrence have been dispatched to Methuen’s Central Station to cover any new calls, but as soon as a truck from Salem arrives, Buote agrees with deputy fire chief Bill Barry that it’s time for the Lawrence squad to go “back where they’re needed most.” He is referring to the town’s seriously undermanned department, which lost 23 firefighters to layoffs in July, reducing staffing by almost a quarter and sparking months of angry public debate in neighboring communities about mutual aid, public spending, and public safety.

Brian Murphy has seen Lawrence’s fire department through this contentious year. A department member since 1979 and now its provisional chief, he believes that the current staffing levels of 15 to 20 firefighters per shift over three stations is not enough to protect the city’s population of 72,000 living and working in 6.75 square miles of wooden tenements, old mill buildings, and a crowded merchant district. In January, when Murphy became acting chief, 18 to 23 staffed each shift over three stations; back in 1979, 44 to 48 firefighters staffed seven stations across the city during a full shift. (There isn’t any one formula for determining how many firefighters are “enough” for a given city. Population, density, demographics, geography, and identified hazards all matter, according to the International Association of Fire Fighters. Still, just about everyone agrees that Lawrence’s staffing is dangerously low.) Now, Murphy says, with a dozen firefighters out sick or suffering from long-term injuries, Lawrence’s overall strength has not increased in spite of the rehiring of eight firefighters in September. “It’s kinda sad, but it had really no impact. We’re wearing guys out.”

In Murphy’s office, a pair of thick ledgers bound in canvas contains a history of the Lawrence department as told through details from every firefighter’s career. The first entry is for Charles W. Foster, who, at 5 feet 4 inches tall and 115 pounds, joined the department on June 1, 1851, was promoted to “call engineman” in 1888, and “died as a result of overexertion responding to an alarm” on January 29, 1921. He was 87 years old. Murphy, 52, is listed, and so is his father, John J. Murphy. “At one time, he was the oldest firefighter on the department, and I was the youngest,” he says.

On a recent afternoon, Murphy rode through Lawrence in a bright red SUV, checking on abandoned buildings as well as the three fire stations that have been closed down recently. Murphy pointed out the small brick Engine 6 station on Howard Street, near where he grew up. Shuttering it “creates a tremendous delay in response,” he says. “Three or four extra minutes is way too long,” he adds, pointing out that a working fire “will double in size and intensity every 45 to 60 seconds.” Ascending Haverhill Street, Murphy is stopped outside a neat, two-story house when he notices a mannequin on the lawn dressed in boots, fireman’s overcoat, and a helmet with a band around the brim that misspells “Chief” as “Chef.”

“As long as there’s no arrows in it, I’m happy,” Murphy says with a shrug. He has much bigger worries.

* * *

It’s ironic that an economic meltdown brought on by a mortgage crisis has led to hardships for the men and women who protect our homes from fire. But while the barbs flew thick and fast all summer in Lawrence, plenty of other municipalities are struggling to balance financial constraints with public safety and their obligations to help neighbors in need. In Quincy, Ernie Ariente, 53, has been a firefighter for 26 years. That city employs 190 firefighters today, down from 208 in 2008, with four more layoffs expected when a federal grant runs out this week. Still, he says, the people he works with are currently “fighting more fires in Weymouth than in Quincy” because of budget problems in that neighboring community, while also providing aid to other cities including Milton, which has 55 firefighters and hasn’t lost jobs in recent years. “A more affluent community,” Ariente points out, “but we still go on calls there.”

In Weymouth, says firefighter and union president Kevin Connolly, budget difficulties are creating acute staffing shortages. “We had been running three engines and one ladder, 17 guys, to respond to a fire,” he says, but for at least half the days in October, “we have had 13 guys and dropped down to two engines and one ladder.” Not only is there no rescue team ready if the squad of 13 needs emergency help, he says, “we cannot give mutual aid at that point – we have no trucks to give. So in return we don’t get any trucks.” That doesn’t mean neighboring communities won’t send help if there’s another fire in Weymouth: “They will come to a fire but they won’t cover our stations,” says the 42-year-old, a firefighter for 16 years. This slows response time and with lots of communities in the same situation, he says, delays are getting worse. “Quincy has been dropping down, Braintree has been dropping down, Hingham has been dropping down. So we might have to wait for somebody from Boston or Milton.”

It’s the same story in Abington, which now employs 18 firefighters, down from 22 in 2008. If its squad of four or five per shift is out at a fire, “there’s nobody to answer calls to the station,” says Richard M. Smith, 39, union president and a member of the department for 12 years. Abington’s cuts have limited that town’s ability to give mutual aid as well. “Area chiefs have agreed to keep us off their first alarm assignments, knowing that it’s going to cause a hardship for us,” Smith says. But these towns not able to offer aid are still the exception in Massachusetts – for now.

In the debate that consumed Lawrence and Methuen all summer, it is worth noting that the two fire companies remain committed to mutual aid – a courtesy of the profession, not a requirement of the law. That is probably because the custom has such a long history. According to Ken Doherty, 57, a 30-year veteran of Methuen’s fire department and its unofficial historian, Lawrence firefighters have given more than their fair share of aid to Methuen. In 1885, a Lawrence firefighter named James Keegan died fighting a fire at the Blackburn Chemical Works in Methuen. Another Lawrence firefighter, William J. Carney, suffered a fatal heart attack in 1972 while helping Methuen battle an arson fire in a tenement on French Street. (Four Methuen firefighters have lost their lives on the job, though none in Lawrence.) At a firehouse dinner in Lawrence, with the serious subject of lives sacrificed hanging in the air, the extent of the good-natured rivalry between these two departments becomes clear. “Since 1907,” says John McInnes, 45 and a deputy chief, “we’ve never lost to Methuen in softball.”

The mutual aid system, when out of balance, can hurt municipalities giving aid. Covering for a neighboring town “leads to a strain on our ability to service our own people,” says Methuen’s 54-year-old mayor, Bill Manzi. But, he says, “it’s our obligation, whether we like it or not, to help protect our fellow citizens from fires.”

Still, widespread budget woes mean that the conundrum persists across the state. “Laying off firefighters is an easy way to balance your budget,” says state Representative Martin J. Walsh, a Democrat from Dorchester. But, Walsh cautions: “If I were a mayor, I’d be very careful about cutting public safety budgets. God forbid when the day comes where there’s a major incident – or incidents, plural – and we don’t have the personnel to deal with it.”

Part of the strategy to offset layoffs in Methuen, Lawrence, and several other Massachusetts towns has been to apply for federal stimulus money, but fire departments have to be even more entrepreneurial than that, Walsh says. Noting that cities including Boston, Worcester, New Orleans, and New York have received equipment through the Leary Firefighters Foundation (established by actor Denis Leary in response to the 1999 fire that killed six firefighters in Worcester), Walsh says, “I’m not saying you slap the logo of Kowloon or Jordan’s Furniture on the side of a firetruck, but there’s no reason why we can’t ask private industry for help. I’m not the mayor [of Lawrence], but he’s got to be more creative.”

Although sometimes praised for his candor, Lawrence’s mayor since last fall, William Lantigua, 55, is known for saying brash, often impolitic things. He previously served as a state representative from Lawrence, and in his first few months leading that city created a reservoir of ill will that won’t soon be depleted. In August, at a public meeting of area fire chiefs to talk about mutual aid, Lantigua said that Lawrence firefighters have “the highest rate of pay in the Commonwealth,” drawing sarcastic laughter from a group of laid-off firefighters standing along the back wall. A new deal that averted or diminished layoffs was possible, Lantigua said, “if we all come to the table, and not be so greedy.”

“A lot of what you just said is untrue,” replied Pat Driscoll, 49, a third-generation member of Lawrence’s Fire Department and the current union president.

“We have no money,” said Lantigua. “You expect me to stay quiet? No way in hell.”

But beyond his fiery public demeanor on display this summer, there are signs Lantigua is growing into the job. After the meeting, he spent a few moments talking quietly with Methuen’s chief Buote, a virtual stranger.

“What do you think I should do, chief?” asked Lantigua.

“I don’t want to tell you what to do in Lawrence, Mr. Mayor,” said Buote. “But just keep talking to your guys.”

Certainly, Buote’s experience in that regard comes hard-earned. From mid-May to July, Methuen mayor Manzi met repeatedly with the firefighters union. Negotiations yielded savings to the town of approximately $1.9 million in wage modifications, benefit trims, and the like, but kept staffing and services mostly intact, according to Manzi. Cutting salaries is a hard sell, but it was the two sides’ ability to continue meeting, even when negotiations started contentiously, that got it done, Manzi says.

There was also federal help. Last year, Methuen received $470,771 in stimulus money earmarked for Massachusetts firefighters by the state. Now the city has shifted its focus to the federal program SAFER – Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Resources – which was reconfigured in 2009 to give priority to fire departments trying to avoid layoffs rather than hire new employees. Methuen has applied for about $5 million in SAFER funds over two years; if they get it, the money would prevent 33 layoffs. Lawrence, Abington, New Bedford, and Quincy have also applied for funding. (Municipalities expect to hear back by the end of the year.)

According to Jennifer Fortier Stewart, the director of grants administration for the International Association of Fire Fighters in Washington, D.C., $420 million was made available for SAFER during fiscal year 2011, which began July 1, although requests have tripled since last year.

In Abington, where the department has limited the aid it gives to neighboring towns, the city has applied for $128,905 in SAFER funds, which would translate to “two bodies back on shift,” says Smith, the union president there. It’s the same story in the other municipalities, and in other regions of the country. In the Detroit area, where mutual aid is also a strain on surrounding towns, five communities asked Stewart to review their proposals. “It’s not unique to Massachusetts,” she says. “It’s happening nationwide.”

Jay Atkinson’s 2007 novel, City in Amber, depicts the history of Lawrence, including its fire department. He teaches journalism at Boston University. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.