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Teamwork could save money, lives

It was easy, a century ago, to determine where a fire station should be located. A fire station was expected to protect properties within a radius of 1½ miles.

Why? Because that's how far a team of horses could pull a fire wagon in 5 minutes.

The horses are gone, but a lot of fire stations have not budged.

In 1888 the suburb of Westborough, west of Boston, had about 5,000 people and one fire station at the corner of Milk and Grove streets. Today, it has 30,000 people and one fire station at the corner of Milk and Grove streets.

A computer simulation by the Globe illustrates the scale of the state's deficit in fire stations and gives a glimpse of the potential cost-savings if communities worked together. The Globe focused on a cluster of eight prosperous suburbs northwest of Boston: Acton, Bedford, Carlisle, Concord, Lincoln, Maynard, Sudbury, and Wayland.

The object was to see how many fire stations it would take for each house in each town to be within a 4-minute drive of a fire station. The standards from the National Fire Protection Association call for firefighters to be able to drive to fires and ambulance calls within 4 minutes. That's on top of a minute for dispatchers to do their work and another minute for firefighters to get on the road.

The simulation assumed that the 14 current fire stations would stay and that fire engines could drive the speed limit, be free to make left turns as needed, and use every bridge.

The answer was that those towns would need 24 additional stations if they continue to go it alone, covering all their own fires.

But if the towns cooperated, 13 new stations would be needed. That is still a costly increase, considering that each station could cost $2 million or more. But working together could almost halve the cost of reaching the goal.

That goal may not be the right one for every town, said Ronny J. Coleman, a former California fire marshal and a leader of the Commission on Fire Accreditation International. ''Most fire departments don't know what their response deficiencies are. I'd say that less than 1 percent have even set a standard."

BILL DEDMAN

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