District A Town Councilor Angeline Kounelis was amazed the day in February when she realized the Watertown Fire Department had to fight a two-alarm fire and a three-alarm fire on the same day.
She became upset, however, when she learned one of the town’s two ladder trucks could not help douse the flames because there were not enough firefighters on duty that day.
Kounelis said at Tuesday’s Town Council budget hearing that she plans to cast a vote against the Fire Department budget because she said it leaves the department shorthanded. She did the same thing last year.
“It’s was a protest vote and I will do it again,” Kounelis said. “Especially when I hear that Ladder 2 (in the East End Fire Station) is out of commission 50 percent of the time. It affects the East End and it affects the whole town.”
The $7.44 million budget for fiscal 2012 maintains the 16 person minimum staffing, said Fire Chief Mario Orangio, but he would like to see a minimum of 19 firefighters on duty at all times.
The Fire Department staff has been declining for years, from 132 in 1970 to 83 in fiscal 2010, Orangio told the Town Council. At the same time, the number of calls has risen from 1,903 in 1970 to 4,609 in 2010.
The staff has declined even since 2000, when it was 92 and the calls have risen from 3,977.
The fire budget is up $98,000 from the actual fiscal 2011 budget, and $206,000 more than the 2011 budget adopted last June, said Town Manager Michael Driscoll.
The increase, however, only allows the Fire Department to maintain the status quo. It makes up for the loss of a $237,000 stimulus grants provided to the town last year which allowed the town to have 16, rather than 15 people on duty, Driscoll said.
A Public Safety Study has been proposed, which would look at both the Fire and Police departments. Orangio welcomes the study.
“I don’t think residents will say the response time to a fire was too quick or the transportation to hospital was too fast,” Orangio said.
Town Councilor Vincent Piccirilli thanked Orangio for the information on Fire Department staffing, but said he would like to see some other data on how the staffing levels impacts the service provided by the department
“It would be nice to see if you are falling short on response time, and your analysis for why,” Piccirilli said.