Fire Chief Presents Need to Reinstate Four Firefighters

Fire Chief Michael Gagnon answered the hard questions in an April 12 meeting with the Derry Town Council.

Gagnon, Fire Capt. Scott Jackson and Communications Director Jon Goldman fielded questions from the Council on their requested budget for 2017.

Gagnon requested a Prevention and Emergency Services budget of $11,588,872, which would have reinstated four firefighter positions cut by a previous Council. Acting Town Administrator Stephen Daly is proposing a Prevention and Emergency Services budget of $11,231,500.

The other budgets Gagnon supervises are Dispatch, at a working number of $976,790, and Emergency Management, projected at $69,861.


Gagnon began his presentation by noting how many of Derry Fire’s calls are simultaneous. In the calendar year 2015, 56 percent of the calls taken came in while resources were already committed to another call, he said. In hard numbers, 4,626 calls were fielded and 2,572 of those were done while the department was on another call, he said.


Staffing solutions

Gagnon’s proposed budget is higher than Daly’s because he is looking to have four cut positions reinstated. The positions were trimmed before last year’s Council took its final vote and voted to cut four additional positions, he said.

He currently has 66.5 FTE’s or full-time equivalent employees and staffs his four stations with 15 people per shift. The additional four positions would allow him to staff at 16 per shift, he said.

The National Fire Protection Association recommends 22 to 25 per shift, Gagnon said. But he can make do with 16, he added.

The 16th person would be responsible for driving the tanker, which would increase the water supply to structure fires, Gagnon said. Currently, the department needs to wait for mutual aid to bring a tanker.

“Does the tanker save lives? No. It saves property,” he said. But a four-person engine has been calculated to have 25 percent more effectiveness than a three-person engine, and the collateral effect would be lives saved, he said.

Gagnon has been working to fill the four positions reauthorized by residents in the Special Meeting held this past October. “Battalion Chief Jack Webb has been aggressively recruiting,” he said. “I gave three officers a full employment offer today. I have three conditional offers out, and one new firefighter started last week.”

Gagnon said all currently authorized positions will be filled by June.

In response to a question by Councilor David Fischer, Gagnon said each new firefighter would cost approximately $87,500, with salary, benefits, earned time and estimated overtime, for a total of $357,372 more than Daly’s budget.

Fischer also asked how many firefighters were related to current or former members of the department. Gagnon outlined the procedure for hiring, which includes:

  • A written exam;
  • An oral board exam for those who passed the written;
  • An interview with Gagnon, in which “I try to find out what kind of person they are, and if they’ll be a good fit for Derry.”

Gagnon said hiring is not dependent on “who you know or who you are related to.”

Councilor Joshua Bourdon asked if the 16-per-shift model would reduce overtime. Gagnon said it wouldn’t at 16, but that he could reduce the overtime line at 18 per shift.

Gagnon said a fourth person would be especially effective at the Central Fire Station, which handles the majority of calls from the schools, nursing homes, Parkland Medical Center and the business district.

Ideally, he would like to see the station at the traffic circle closed and relocated to the West Derry area, which he described as underserved since the town sold what is now the Halligan Tavern, the former fire station. Gagnon said homes in the west part of town have an eight-minute wait for response to a call, rather than the four-minute response seen in the rest of town. He doesn’t want or need an additional station, he said, but “repositioning” Central would help to better serve the community.

He has been working with the Southern New Hampshire Planning Commission to find a location and said the Shute’s Corner area is good. “From there, we could do four minutes,” he said.

The motto, Gagnon said, is, “Don’t sell the old station till you’ve got a shovel in the ground for a new one.”

Quintupling the savings?

Gagnon is doing some long-range planning in his equipment line and said he would like to replace an aging engine with a “quint,” a quintuple combination pumper apparatus that serves the dual purpose of an engine and ladder truck. A new engine costs $600,000, a ladder truck is $1.5 million and a quint would cost $900,000, but it would reduce his overall fleet by one piece of apparatus.

He would need two “quints” to serve the community and said, “Initially we would pay more, but our savings over seven years would be $1.2 million, due to greater utilization of our equipment.”

A quint is also smaller and would maneuver better in long driveways, Gagnon said.

He eventually needs to replace the majority of his apparatus, Gagnon said, noting that most vehicles were purchased between 1995 and 2001, and will soon come to the end of their life spans.

Gagnon proposed a 10-year lease at 3 percent. Council member Jim Morgan offered the alternate plan of a 10-year bond, at 1.7 percent.

“That would save us some serious money,” Morgan said. “We could use the CIP (Capital improvements Plan) to pay the bond.”

It is fiscally responsible to look at bonding, Morgan said, adding, “We will not see interest rates like this again.”

The quint does not have a platform and Council member Charles Foote wondered if that would be a problem. Gagnon said Mutual Aid would help out here: “There are plenty of communities with platform trucks that we can call,” he said.

How to dispatch?

Councilor Phyllis Katsakiores noted that County Commissioner Kevin Coyle has suggested that Derry take advantage of the free dispatch service offered by Rockingham County. Goldman said they had looked into it, and “the county can’t take the volume of our calls.”

But Gagnon said both he and Goldman are “huge proponents of regionalization,” and they haven’t ruled it out for the future.

Morgan observed that a move to Shute’s Corner would also relocate Dispatch, and asked if that would prohibit the town’s service to Chester and Auburn. Jackson said it would not affect those towns, which contract with Derry for dispatch. “We have a signal from the Warner Hill tower and remote links to Chester and Auburn,” he said.

Councilors had questions about a line item on hydrant maintenance. The Town of Derry charges the Fire Department $414,000 per year for hydrant maintenance, Daly said.

“This is the only Fire Department in the country that is charged for hydrants,” he said. He recommended that the item be removed from the Fire budget and put in the town budget under Other Municipal Obligations, and the Council agreed to flag the item for later discussion.

The General Supplies line item is up nearly $10,000 and Morgan asked why. Gagnon said the number reflects an increased interest in CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) classes and a “ramping up” of other public education programs. “With community risk reduction, you get a better bang for your buck,” he said.

Gagnon expressed pride in his ambulance department, which is one of only 11 nationwide accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Ambulance Services. “Many people are alive today because their ‘incident’ happened in Derry,” he said.