Westfield's most recent Town Council meeting on Tuesday, May 22 saw residents and firefighters speak out to implore Mayor Andy Skibitsky and council members to consider increasing what they believe are dangerously low staffing levels on the Westfield Fire Department.
Concerns reached a fever pitch after a three-alarm fire destroyed a home on Barchester Way. When the fire began, one of the WFD's units was responding to a call for mutual aid from Springfield, leaving only one unit with three members available to respond.
In light of recent developments, Patch reached out town officials to find out what is being done to allay the concerns of residents.
Councilman Keith Loughlin, vice-chair of Westfield's Public Safety Committee spoke with Patch, stating that "the council's top priority is making sure that residents feel safe."
The councilman said the committee meets regularly with Westfield Fire Department Chief Dan Kelly "regarding all fire issues including staffing and I have the utmost confidence in our chief."
Loughlin went on to say that at a recent public safety meeting, he asked Kelly to inform the committee "immediately if staffing levels ever dropped below a point he was comfortable with."
"I also asked this of our police chief (David Wayman)," Loughlin said. "Our public safety committee will continue to closely monitor staffing levels of both our police and fire departments with our town professionals."
Loughlin pointed out that unlike many neighboring towns who have volunteer fire departments, Westfield has a paid fire department with two fire houses.
"We participate in firefighting shared services with neighboring towns and provide and receive mutual aid from our neighbors," he said. "We are making every effort to maintain a paid department in this extremely difficult economic environment. Many of the other employees of our town, including our mayor and town council, serve as volunteers at no cost to the Westfield taxpayer. However, a new paid firefighter costs our taxpayers over a $100,000 per employee including benefits, training and equipment. The enormous expense of maintaining a paid fire department is a state-wide issue not unique to Westfield.
"We recently imposed a sewer fee on all residents in Westfield to preserve our paid fire department. In addition, we are looking for creative ways to increase our ranks without increasing the burden on Westfield taxpayers. We have applied for a federal grant (the SAFER Grant: Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response) in order to fund the salaries and benefits of (up to) four new firefighters for two years at no cost to the Westfield taxpayer. We anticipate learning of the awarding of the SAFER Grant sometime in September."
Loughlin said he is "confident and optimistic" that the grants will be approved. He noted that if they don't come through, the public safety committee would meet again to reassess staffing needs at that time and develop a strategy for increasing manpower.
During the May 22nd meeting, Mayor Andy Skibitsky asked Lt. Tim Brennan, a Westfield resident and firefighter, who said he no longer feels safe in his hometown, if the union (Firefighter’s Mutual Benevolent Association) would be willing to open up the contract for possible renegotiation, which could lead to an increase of firefighters per shift. Brennan said he could not speak for the group. But when councilman James Foerst asked him if he personally would be willing to discuss it, Brennan said "to a point."
Loughlin said to his knowledge the FMBA has not reached out to Skibitsky or the council as of Monday, June 4, but he said "the offer still stands and we are willing and interested in seeking out solutions for increasing staffing levels."
Neither Kelly nor Westfield FMBA No. 30 President Mike Sawicki returned calls for comment.
Following the impassioned words of Ellen DiIorio who lost her Cumberland Street home, her pets and all her belongings in a September, 2011 fire, Westfield resident John Blake spoke before the council and suggested that if residents were asked to pay $10, $50 or $100 per house, the council "would probably get the applause of the majority of the taxpayers."
Loughlin said there are no plans at this time to institute another user fee, noting again that the decision to impose the recent sewer fee was not arrived at "hastily" and was made to preserve the paid fire department.
When asked if the mayor or council had any plans to move to an all-volunteer department, Loughlin said, "Westfield has historically had a paid fire department. Each town makes its own determination whether to have a paid or volunteer department. In fact, Westfield does have a volunteer fire company currently comprised of 10 firefighters who serve alongside our paid firefighters. There have been discussions of transitioning to an all-volunteer department. We will continue to work to maintain our paid fire department and continue to meet regularly with our chief to monitor staffing levels."
Skibitsky and councilwoman JoAnn Neylan, chair of the public safety committee, did not return emails or calls for comment.
The Town Council will meet at 8 p.m. tonight in the Council Chambers of the Municipal Building.