Mike Kirby: “Thinking about our Fire Protection”

From Mike Kirby’s January 10 post to Kirby on the Loose:

Thinking about our Fire Protection

…In 1997, Mayor Mary Ford commissioned a study [download study, 4MB PDF] of the department by the private outfit, Municipal Resources Inc, which the Chief moonlights for today as a consultant. She never made the study public, which is too bad. I went fishing with a Freedom of Information request for any work MRI had done for the city and in came this 65 page study. The good stuff is always hidden away in files in this town. It is a truly explosive illuminating snapshot of an extremely troubled department. There was little training, there was nepotism; there was sometimes chaos at the fire scenes. Every time the union wanted anything, they would file a grievance and it would have to go into arbitration. The Chief was hired to restore law and order, and he has done that. But he said ok to much of the status quo: the multiple fiefdoms within the department. What the report said that in many ways it was five departments inside one department, each with its own deputy.

The reorganization that this report recommended never took place. The text of the report never was made public, even though reporters had it. A kind of self-censorship still flourishes today. If the mayor or the chamber or the fire chief wants to downplay certain aspects of the story, it never makes the light of day. The deputies and the union agreed to Mary Ford bringing in a new chief, but not to the reorganization and not to the layoffs. The main recommendation was to shift command responsibilities to Captains and Lieutenants. The report also recommended more pre-fire planning and sending companies out to do inspections, which allows the fire people to “actually see the building they will be operating in some night.” This innovation was torpedoed by someone who told them that having the companies along would “slow down” the deputies. Such a program might have made a big difference in how the Meadowbrook fire was handled: ditto for the fire that burned down Ed Jazab’s house in Shepherds Hollow. It’s still an ingrown antiquated culture and command structure. Too many well-paid chiefs and not enough Indians. Deputy chiefs are tactical commanders, and there are four of them, one for each shift. 15 supervisors for 42 firefighters…

…our sister communities have a more modern and economical structure. Easthampton has the Fire Chief, no deputies, and four work groups of firefighters lead by Captains. It’s all muscle, with lots of feet on the ground. And it has a call force it can call on in emergencies; a list of trained firefighters to supplement the regular crew. Amherst has a fire crew manned by students…

There should be fire drills in public housing and complexes, and administrators of housing need to be held accountable for how well their fire alarm systems work. The fire department should check our fire hydrants regularly, not the water department. Special attention should be paid to outreach in the heavily forested western areas of the city where pressures are low or there are no hydrants at all…

See also:

City of Northampton, Massachusetts Fire Department: “Forging a New Identity and Spirit of Service for the 21st Century – An Analysis and Recommendations for Action” (PDF, 4MB, 9/5/97)

Video: Committee on Public Safety, 11/10/09; Meadowbrook Firefighting Questioned and Defended
Several citizens including former city councilor Mike Kirby questioned the performance of the Fire Department in attacking the fire. The firefighters defended their performance.

The owner of Meadowbrook, Preservation of Affordable Housing (POAH), was also criticized by citizens for the state of the electrical wiring on the site, numerous false fire alarms and lack of responsiveness to complaints.

The Committee on Public Safety expressed satisfaction with the Fire Department’s performance but plans to inquire with POAH as to conditions at the complex.

Gazette: “Apartment fire: Meadowbrook tenants, fire department at odds over fire response” (11/14/09)
…Fire Chief Brian Duggan said members of his department have grown accustomed in recent years to a degree of suspicion from the community beyond Meadowbrook, because of misconceptions they reacted slowly and ineffectively to fires at Meadowbrook and elsewhere.

“You get continual negative reinforcement and criticism,” Duggan said. “That takes a toll.”

One member of the department told the committee and audience he takes the criticism personally.

“I find it offensive that you attack the integrity of our rank and file,” said Capt. Jon Davine…

Gazette: “Duggan gets 5 more years” (11/10/09)
Mayor Clare Higgins re-appointed Fire Chief Brian P. Duggan to another five-year term nine months before his current contract was set to expire.

“The goal was to keep him another five years,” Higgins said, when asked of the timing of the re-appointment…

Duggan was hired by former Mayor Mary L. Ford in 1998 at age 34 after serving for nearly a decade as fire chief in Northborough. Higgins later reappointed him to a five-year term…

In addition to his full-time job, Duggan also serves as a public safety advisor for Municipal Resources, Inc. a New Hampshire consulting firm that provides technical and management support to municipalities.

Kirby on the Loose: “When firemen have to watch buildings burn down: a second posting on the Meadowbrook fire” (7/28/09)

Kirby on the Loose: “Not their finest hour: Questions raised by neighbors in the Shepherd’s Hollow blaze” (8/17/08)