While the Derry Fire Department and the state Fire Marshal’s Office investigated a woman’s death in a fire Thursday night, July 16, on Route 28 Bypass, Derry residents are questioning whether the death could have been prevented by proper staffing and the presence of the former Hampstead Road Fire Station.
But Fire Chief Michael Gagnon said Friday that in his professional opinion, while the department was short-staffed, the outcome would have been the same.
“I think the outcome would have been the same and I don’t think the shortage of staff contributed to her death,” Gagnon said in a phone interview Friday morning.
Gagnon said he is operating on a staff of 12 per shift, down from the 14 he had before the budget cuts. He had 10 people available to respond immediately. “Two others were on an ambulance call for mutual aid,” he said. “They received the call at the Hudson/Londonderry line.
“We put what resources we had on the scene,” Gagnon said. While they were “hampered” by a smaller staff, he said, it was his professional opinion, given the facts, that the woman’s death could not have been prevented.
According to a press release by Battalion Chief Scott Haggert, the department received a 9-1-1 call at approximately 10:05 p.m. regarding the fire at 157 Bypass 28.
Engines 3, 1 and 2 and Car 1 were dispatched simultaneously from their stations. The fatal fire investigation conducted by Derry Police Chief Edward Garone, Gagnon and State Fire Marshal J. William Degnan noted Friday that Engine 3 from the English Range Road station was first on scene at 10:08 p.m.
Medic 1 arrived later, according to Haggert, as it was out of town responding to another call.
Haggert wrote that Truck 4 was not available due to staffing reductions.
The two residents were reported as not capable of self-rescue and the department requested a mutual aid ambulance and engine. The first crews responding noticed smoke on the second floor, with people still in the house. The engine company and two Derry police officers removed one resident from the first floor, according to Haggert.
A second engine company arrived and assisted with fire extinguishing, search and ventilation. The crews located an unresponsive victim on the second floor and with difficulty, were able to remove her. They began CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) while waiting for the medic crew to arrive, and that crew took over resuscitation efforts when it reached the scene.
Haggert wrote that rescue was made difficult due to “hoarding conditions” of the residents.
Firefighters were unable to resuscitate the woman, who was identified as Arlene M. Evens, 62. Her cause of death was determined to be smoke inhalation.
The male was transported to Parkland Medical Center by a Londonderry ambulance.
Haggert wrote that the building sustained smoke and fire damage to the second floor of the left side of the duplex.
Mutual aid was provided by Londonderry, Windham, Auburn, Chester, Manchester and Hampstead. An additional medical call was handled by mutual aid during the fire, according to Haggert.
The Red Cross was asked to assist with housing the male survivor. The Derry Salvation Army provided rehabilitation services to the responders at the scene.
A press release sent out Friday afternoon by the state Fire Marshal’s Office stated that the fire was determined to be accidental in nature and the result of smoking materials in proximity to medical oxygen.
State Fire Marshal William Degnan took the opportunity to warn citizens of the dangers of smoking while using or in close proximity to medical oxygen. Degnan stated in a press release that rapid fire development and increased intensity can occur, causing serious injury or death, and that smoking is the leading cause of burns, reported fires, deaths and injuries involving home medical oxygen.
Degnan also reminded residents to make sure they have working smoke alarms and a home fire escape plan.
Gagnon reiterated that though more staffing would have helped, the outcome would have been the same.
Though discussion by others on their Facebook page was critical of the Town Council, the Professional Firefighters of Derry took the high road on Facebook, writing, “Let’s keep the discussions civil, this is a very tragic event for the family and all the members that worked this scene. The Emergency crews that worked this incident did everything right and everything in their power to get the job done. We are saddened by this situation and in no way looking to use it as a weapon during this hostile political environment.”
But some Derry residents wondered if the event was the tip of an iceberg.
Resident David Macpherson wrote in an e-mail to the Nutfield News, “Her husband who is wheelchair-bound was on the first floor and unable to get her. Engine 3 arrived, followed quickly by Engine 1.Both companies attempted to get to the woman but needed additional help. Had the Hampstead Road station been open with (Engine) 4 they would have been rolling up quickly. Instead, E2 from Island Pond was third due.”
Neil Wetherbee is a former Town Councilor and one of the architects of a petition drive to overturn several of the budget votes. He said in a phone interview Friday, “At the end of the day, we may never know, even with full staffing, whether the woman’s death could have been prevented.”
Would a full staff prevent every fatality? “Probably not,” Wetherbee said.
But to him, the $1.21 savings on the tax rate isn’t worth taking that risk.
Wetherbee said he also thinks about an incident last fall, when two boys fell through the ice on Hood Pond, and he wondered, “With reduced staff, would that have had a different outcome?”
Brian Chirichiello, a former Town Councilor and current Republican state representative, said he could see a correlation between the reduced staff, closed station and fatality. “I can see it, especially after the Fire Chief testified that with the cuts, the response times would suffer,” he said.
Chirichiello and Wetherbee both stopped short of blaming the Town Councilors for the death, but Chirichiello said, “It does leave one to wonder.”
Wetherbee and Chirichiello both think the issue of the cuts should go to a community vote. “If this goes to a vote and they vote to keep the cuts, I’ll say I was wrong,” Wetherbee said. “It’s unfortunate that something like this should happen so quickly.”
Chirichiello noted, “We are three weeks into the budget cuts.”
Council Chairman Tom Cardon wrote in an e-mail, “I am heartbroken and saddened over the loss of life in Derry last night due to a fire. My condolences go out to the family and friends of the victim. I will defer questions to the Fire Chief and State Fire Marshal’s office but I have 100 percent confidence in our Fire Department to keep our town safe.”