Many functions in Dedham government can limp along for a while to save money.
Firefighting is not one of those functions.
Right now, if there are not 11 firefighters on duty for a shift, Engine 4 cannot go out to a fire. Of course there are provisions made so the whole town is equally protected, but that is not really the coverage Dedham wants. Dedham wants all its territories fully braced for any emergency.
Sure there are excuses: there are vacancies, soaring overtime costs, union considerations, transfers to other departments, illnesses, injuries. All those components are part of the overall problem and all are important.
None of them trumps top fire protection. Fire is immediate and deadly. Anything less than the town’s utmost efforts are inadequate. Saying the town will muddle along until new personnel arrive early next year is ridiculous. That leaves Dedham in constant peril that it will fall short on its personnel count. Every morning the town will count its firefighters and decide on that day’s plan. If there are not enough firefighters in Dedham, the town will call on a neighboring town and hope that the neighboring fire department has the wherewithal to help. What happens when the neighboring department asks Dedham for help and Dedham can’t?
Town Administrator Bill Keegan is an excellent official who is trying desperately to bring down enormous overtime pay; usually overtime runs $400,000 to $450,000 but with all the unusual expenses this year it will run around $1 million.
Keegan has been talking with Acting Fire Chief William Spillane, Finance Director Mariellen Murphy and the Firefighter’s Union. All seek to avoid that $1 million price-tag.
As it stands now, Keegan’s setup will save some money; but if there is a big fire that breaks out and someone is killed, it might get dicey. Someone could claim the town cut back its maximum safety force and therefore put the victim’s life in danger. Dedham has a contract with firefighters to protect the town; why -- the plaintiff will demand – did the town abandon the legal agreement specifically aimed at keeping everyone safe.
Selectmen are debating the issue, with Selectman James MacDonald wanting all the Engines on the road while Mike Butler and Paul Reynolds calling for fiscal conservatism.
Fiscal conservatism is top priority everywhere, except in putting out active fires that immediately threaten townspeople.
Now that Selectmen have debated the question in open forum, it has become a very simple issue. Will Dedham run with a full firefighter force or not.
If Dedham puts out a depleted force, it faces the threat of law suits that would make a few hundred thousand dollars in overtime look tiny. Anybody who loses someone in a fire will have grounds to say Dedham failed to properly fight the flames. All they need do is point to the fire contract, which spells out what is needed.
Pay the OT.
Then go over all the details and work out the difficulties.
But don’t imperil Dedham in the meanwhile.