Michael Gagnon was in the hot seat, and he wasn’t at a fire scene.
The new Fire Chief for Derry, who took over for retiring George Klauber in February, defended his budget needs for the first time before the Town Council and a packed house April 21, when Town Administrator Galen Stearns presented his 2016 budget last week.
Gagnon’s department, which encompasses both fire protection and emergency management, would not be allowed to fill four vacant positions under Stearns’ working budget. Gagnon took the microphone to explain what that would mean to Derry.
Gagnon explained that to staff the Town’s four fire stations, a corps of 16 people per shift is ideal. Last year that did not occur, he said, and it won’t occur this year if the vacant positions are not filled.
With 16 people, he can have a fourth person on the engine leaving Central Fire Station, a “best practice” recommended by the National Fire Protection Association. Gagnon explained that Central, at the Derry traffic circle, serves the Fairways, Garden, Aladdin and Franklin apartment complexes, as well as Parkland Medical Center, Pleasant Valley Nursing Home, and five of the town’s seven public schools. Its proximity to major routes means that Central is first on the scene to accidents on Route 102, Route 28 and Interstate 93, he said.
The fourth person also staffs the tanker, and he said that piece of apparatus hasn’t been used for a while because there’s no one to operate it.
But he’s willing to deal on the tanker, noting, “Does a tanker save a life? No. It protects property. An adequately-staffed engine company with rapid response saves a life.”
Council member David Fischer asked if Gagnon had proposed any cost-saving ideas to Stearns and Gagnon said he had. He’s interested in group purchases with other local departments, noting that “With group purchasing you can get a better deal on 10,000 feet of hose than I could get on my own for 1,000 feet.”
He’s also ready to look at the Capital Improvement Plan to dig out long-term savings. For example, he said, a new engine comes in at $600,000 and a new ladder truck at $1.5 million. But a new combination “Quint” engine/ladder truck may save the town money, he said.
“We can also reduce the cost of radios by changing their functionality,” he said. “We can change the staff vehicle. We don’t need a Tahoe. Something smaller and more efficient would do.”
“And if we stay at 15 per shift, there’s no point in buying a new tanker,” Gagnon said. “We won’t have anyone to staff it.”
If it comes to the point of closing a fire station, Gagnon said he recommended Hampstead Road. “That one can be reached more efficiently from the other three districts,” he said.
Gagnon said for 57 percent of the time that a call comes in, fire personnel are already responding to another call or a “simultaneous incident.”
Councilor Joshua Bourdon asked about recommended response times, and Gagnon said the NFPA recommends that the first unit on the scene be there in four minutes and the rest of the responders in eight.
Gagnon also answered questions about the town’s contracts with Chester and Auburn, to which Derry provides ambulance and emergency medical service. “It is projected for this year, 2015, that we’ll be in Chester and Auburn 4.1 percent of the time,” he said, leaving approximately 96 percent of their time in Derry. Chester and Auburn provide 11 percent of the total call volume and 22 percent of the overall revenue, he said.
Councilor Mark Osborne asked, “Are you confident these contracts are paying for themselves?”
Gagnon said he’d had the discussion with his senior staff. “We are looking at all our programs, what to keep, what to discontinue,” he said. “I believe it’s a good deal for us to keep EMS in Chester and Auburn.”
Stearns is proposing a Fire budget for 2016 of $8,812,184, a decrease of $437,766 from last year’s $9,249,950.