With a Fire Department that is stretched thin due to budget constraints, Derry had to call on Londonderry for mutual aid seven times on Sept. 2, when the Town was overwhelmed with multiple brush fires and other incidents.
After Derry’s Town Council closed a fire station and reduced Fire staffing, the community saw an increase in its use of mutual aid from Londonderry, from one time in August 2014 to nine times in August 2015.
“Most days we run at a staffing of 12 people,” Derry Fire Chief Mike Gagnon said. “We only ran at staffing of 14 people a total of three times in July, and twice in August. Our daily staffing as a matter of routine is 12 people, and that basically takes a whole engine company out of play. When we have the simultaneous calls, we are required to utilize mutual aid more often.”
On Wednesday, Sept. 2, Londonderry assisted Derry with coverage for a brush fire at 11:38 a.m. near the power lines in the area of Pingree Hill Road, and for a second brush fire at 2:33 p.m. in the area of Ballard Pond.
Londonderry Engine 2 was providing various aid to Derry throughout the afternoon, and just after noon Engine 2 was dispatched for station coverage, then diverted to the scene of the first brush fire on Pingree Hill Road, the Professional Fire Fighters of Londonderry Local 3160 reported on Sept. 2.
Soon after, Engine 2 was sent to cover another Derry station, and then was dispatched to the second brush fire off Gill Road.
Londonderry’s Medic 3 also responded to a request for mutual medical aid.
“Londonderry was basically in town from noon to 6 p.m.,” Gagnon said. “They were not only covering the stations, but also responding to calls in town. When Londonderry has a busy day, we would just as likely do that for them.”
Londonderry Fire Chief Darren O’Brien, who has reduced his own staffing levels to keep his department’s budget in line, said fortunately, Londonderry was relatively quiet on Sept. 2.
“We dropped to a staffing level of nine personnel starting on Sept. 1,” he said. “It’s a blessing that we were in a lull mode at the time we were going over (to Derry). It was a busy day, altogether. Between both towns, we responded to 16 calls.”
O’Brien said Londonderry never had to call for mutual aid to mitigate incidents in its own town on Sept. 2.
On the evening of Sept. 5, Londonderry Fire personnel were called back to Derry to assist with station coverage, when all Derry’s firefighters were working on another brush fire near the power lines in the area of Symphony Lane, close to the previous brush fire on Sept. 2.
Moving into winter, a busy season for New England fire departments, it is likely Derry’s need for mutual aid will continue to increase, as will Londonderry’s.
“An increase in demand for mutual aid has the potential to have a strain on surrounding communities. It all depends on their call volume and their staffing for the day,” O’Brien said. “When Derry drops down to 14 personnel per day, it taxes them for the way they operate over there. We structure our department over here a little differently, and we made it work out during our financial crises and hope to increase our staffing as time goes on. We should be at 14 personnel per shift, but it takes time. I understand their struggles over there and hope everything gets straightened out.”
But as long as Derry is in need of mutual aid response, Londonderry Fire will continue to support it, according to O’Brien.
“We have been supporting each other and trying to make it work. There was a day five or six years ago when a Town Councilor from Derry came to Londonderry and sat in a Town Council meeting, saying they weren’t providing mutual aid to Londonderry, they were basically subsidizing our department. In turn, we changed our cards and made that go down, and since then it has been working out better. It made us look at different ways to do that and try to resolve the problem. I’m sure Derry will be looking at doing that as well.”
“You used to hear Derry was subsidizing Londonderry; and the other day, Londonderry was subsidizing Derry, for sure,” Gagnon said. “Times have changed. I think staffing between the two communities is going to be helping each other more than in the past. Derry is in a situation where call volume is not going down, but resources have.”
While Derry’s demand for mutual aid response from Londonderry increased in August, Londonderry’s demand for mutual aid from Derry increased in July.
In July 2014, Derry went to Londonderry six times, compared with 10 mutual aid responses to Londonderry in July 2015.
Derry provided mutual aid response to Londonderry three times in both August 2014 and August 2015, according to Gagnon.
“We have two very similar communities, where the resources are diminishing but the call volume is not,” he said. “The resources are stretched thin.”
The Londonderry Professional Fire Fighters Local 3160 reported last week the Department has responded to 86 more incidents in Londonderry this year than for the same period last year.
“The way I look at it, we have aid agreements between all communities. I will give them whatever they need because they’ll reciprocate, as well,” O’Brien said.
“We’re both in the same boat, and we both know we need to support each other to get through these times,” Gagnon said.