Amherst firefighters raise alarm over 2-person response to night blaze

Amherst Fire Department

Amherst Fire Department STAFF FILE PHOTO

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 07-08-2024 2:15 PM

AMHERST — A late-night fire in downtown Amherst, during which only one career firefighter/paramedic was available to extinguish the blaze, is prompting the union representing town firefighting staff to renew its longstanding appeal for enhanced staffing.

In a statement issued by Sarah Forsaith, president of the Amherst Fire Fighters Local 1764, the response to the July 1 structure fire, which caused minimal damage to the fourth-floor balcony of the building at 63 South Pleasant St. and no personal injuries, is being called “unacceptable.”

“This type of response is dangerous for the residents of Amherst and our firefighters,” Forsaith said, cautioning that success in such situations is not a given. “The outcome of this could have been much worse.”

The statement notes that national standards are to have four firefighters on board a truck when responding to an active fire. For the incident, at 10:15 p.m. at the rear of the La Veracruzana restaurant, the box alarm indicated flames and fire were showing and 10 minutes later a recall sounded for a working structure fire.

Even though nine firefighter paramedics were working at the time, five at the Central fire station and four at the North fire station, most of the personnel were busy with other calls. Three ambulances were either on medical calls in town, at Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton with patients, or returning from the hospital, with each ambulance having two firefighter-paramedics on board. Two other staff were on board an engine acting as emergency first response vehicle waiting for a mutual aid ambulance from out of town. This meant that eight firefighter-paramedics were active on other calls, leaving just one person to handle any other calls.

It was that firefighter, Capt. Chris Goodhind, with help from Assistant Fire Chief Lindsay Stromgren, the department’s acting chief, who were at the scene. Stromgren pumped the engine to provide water during the initial attack and suppression, doing command at the same time. This is a dual duty that the union contends should not happen.

“The Amherst Fire Department routinely has a single firefighter on an engine due to the fact that we cross-staff our engines and our ambulances. With this model, only one truck may be staffed, leaving the other type of truck inadequately staffed,” the union stated.

The union also is concerned that their opinion “continues to fall on deaf ears” of town leaders. In the past, the union has argued the town is “gambling” with public safety due to staffing issues.

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In an email, Town Manager Paul Bockelman thanked the firefighters for their response.

“I have asked the interim fire chief to conduct an after-action analysis so we continue to learn and improve our response in emergency situations,” Bockelman said.

“It was a very busy night with multiple calls for emergency services in a very condensed period of time. As always, the town’s firefighters responded to every call and utilized the region’s mutual aid system as necessary,” he explained.

Bockelman applauded Stromgren and Goodhind for their immediate response on scene at the fire.

“Their experience and training and ability to respond so quickly were key to extinguishing the fire,” Bockelman said. “They showed exemplary leadership during this situation.”

The town has completed staffing studies to provide advice on the needs of the department. The last one was completed at a time when the department was staffing eight personnel per shift.

The fiscal year 2025 budget narrative states that the department has added four firefighter/EMTs over the past two years, with support from a strategic partnership with the University of Massachusetts.

The department has 51 full-time positions, though not all positions are filled, and is supplemented with 24 part-time call firefighters and 36 student firefighter volunteers.

Even with the concern, Forsaith said the department does its best for the community.

“We will always provide the residents and visitors of Amherst the highest level of public safety possible,” Forsaith wrote.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.