GLOUCESTER, Mass. -- At a time when resources are shrinking and budgets are being slashed emergency calls are up in many cities and towns, causing concerns about manpower and response times. Even more alarming is the discovery that many local fire departments don't meet federal standards.
Looking back on the fatal fire in Gloucester this winter Chief Barry McKay said, "It was simply more fire than we had the people to contain."
It was manpower and water versus a fire that grew into a raging inferno, and when the smoke cleared in Gloucester last December one man was dead and a city block was burned to the ground.
McKay admits his department didn't have enough firefighters to control and battle the blaze.
"We have the resources we have, and we did the best we could with the resources we have," he said.
The blaze was directly across the street from fire headquarters, and when the call came in firefighters were already responding to three medical calls in the city. That left one firefighter on a ladder truck for the initial response.
When asked how effective one firefighter on a ladder can be during a fire like Gloucester, McKay said, "Other than setting up the ladder truck, he can't be very effective."
Mark Nicastro, Capt. Barry Aptt and two other firefighters pulled in on an engine about three minutes later.
Nicastro was running the engine that was pumping water on the fire but was ordered to abandon the truck to try and rescue 70-year-Robert Taylor, who was trapped inside. An evacuation was ordered, but unfortunately, Taylor died.
Firefighters say the end result could have been even worse.
"I left guys inside without an operator at the pump," Nicastro said. "If something did go wrong they would've been stuck in there."
Aptt added, "He's in control of the water so he was actually taken away from his position to crawl in the window so no one was manning the engine. If we lost water or if the hydrant had gone bad nobody was there."
In 2006, Bridget Clary was killed in a smoky fire. The firehouse one mile from her Gloucester home was closed because there weren't enough firefighters to staff it. The fires sparked the I-Team to look into staffing levels and response times at fire departments across the Bay State. We emailed surveys to cities and towns and sifted through the data to see which departments meet the guidelines set by the National Fire Protection Association.
The NFPA recommends four firefighters per apparatus, and the first crew should be on scene within four minutes of the call. Very few departments meet those standards.
"We're not coming close," said Captain Jim Hurley with the Randolph Fire Department. "It's frustrating."
Only eight percent of the 38 departments surveyed, including departments like Boston, Brookline and Lawrence, meet the manpower recommendation. Just about half arrive on scene in time. So when the alarm sounds what's at risk?
"It's riskier for the public, and it's riskier for us," Aptt said.
Hurley said risk increases because emergency calls in town are up but the number of people needed to help are down.
"The standard on our ladder truck, a half million dollar piece of equipment is four," he said. "We're lucky if we have one on it."
Concord fire Chief Ken Willette is the head of the Massachusetts Fire Chiefs Association. He said most departments in Massachusetts are struggling.
"It appears our staffing levels are pretty consistent to where they were 10 to 15 years ago even though call volumes have greatly increased and there are a number of calls occurring simultaneously," Willette said.
"You do the best with what you have," Chief McKay said. "But knowing if we had more we could do better. But the resources aren't there."
The NFPA says meeting the standards is crucial because manpower and response time impact the ability to fight fires, to save lives and also firefighter safety. But with budget cuts the news for some of these departments only gets worse.
Gloucester's fire budget will be cut by $200,000 next year. Right now, Brockton is down 21 firefighters from just two years ago. But in Randolph, four firefighters will be added thanks to an override that passed.
Republished with permission of WBZ-TV.