Hartford Seeks New Firefighters

Valley News Staff Writer
Friday, December 14, 2018

White River Junction — Whether the town should fund three new, full-time firefighter positions and spend $70,000 on a design and engineering study for a new pool were two of the focal points at a Hartford Selectboard budget workshop this week at Town Hall.

Hartford Fire Chief Scott Cooney made a presentation requesting additional staff based on what he said is escalating demand for fire department services in town. The department, which has a minimum of three firefighters on duty on weekdays and a minimum of four on weekends, experienced a 6 percent increase in calls between 2016 and 2017 and a 12 percent increase this year over last year. Cooney expects figures for this year to see another 10 to 14 percent increase, he said.

Between this year and last year, only 2 percent of calls were for fires, while 68 percent were for medical events, Cooney said. All of Hartford’s captains, lieutenants and firefighters double as emergency medical technicians and paramedics.

“Fire departments nationwide have become the catch-all when 911 calls are placed,” Cooney said, according to a CATV video of the meeting.

Cooney went on to compare Hartford’s fire department with Hanover’s, which fields only a slightly larger number of calls per year. Hanover has a minimum of four firefighters during all shifts and has five during peak activity shifts.

“If there is a car accident and we only have three (firefighters on shift), two of them have to be on the ambulance,” Cooney said. “That means there is only one in an engine and we need to call for assistance from Hanover or Lebanon.”

One of the primary issues the department faces is an inability to respond to a second call when all three or four of its firefighters already are in the field, Cooney said. According to his presentation, the Hartford Fire Department receives a second call 45 percent of the time, compared to 20 percent of the time in 2006.

That’s enough to get the attention of Hartford Town Manager Leo Pullar, who recommended allowing for the three new positions in his budget proposal.

The salaries for the three jobs would total $272,449.

“Right now, our department is in a position where it is often unable to respond to a second call,” Pullar said at the meeting. “We have to decide: is that acceptable or not?”

Cooney presented funding methods that could be possible alternatives to placing all three positions into the general operating budget, including applying for a grant that would cover parts of the salaries over the first three years, a tax-rate subsidized approach that would utilize undesignated funds, and staggered hiring that would bring on 1½ firefighters per year during each of the next two years.

Selectboard members voiced general support for the department’s increased needs.

“You’ve made a compelling argument, and I know that it’s not based on want, but need,” Selectboard Chairman Simon Dennis said. “I think it’s clear that somehow or another, we need to figure out how we can meet those service needs.”

Also at the workshop, Hartford Recreation Director Scott Hausler outlined a proposed $70,000 design and engineering study recommended in Pullar’s budget that would provide surveying, architectural renderings and detailed cost estimates for a new pool facility at Hartford High School. The study, which would be paid for with local option tax funds, would need to be approved by voters at Town Meeting in March.

It would be the next step after an ad hoc pool advisory committee this year found that Hartford residents are in favor of a new pool facility at the current site of Sherman Manning Pools, which were closed indefinitely this year due to chronic leakage problems and structural issues.

Eighty percent of those surveyed by the committee identified having an outdoor pool as important or very important, and residents highlighted amenities such as “zero-depth entry” access and slide and spray features during additional public survey work. A preliminary cost estimate, including demolition of the current facilities, was in the $3.6 million range.

“The only things that wouldn’t be included in the study would be construction drawings and further engineering for permitting,” Hausler said. “That would come after a successful bond vote.”

Selectboard member Alan Johnson suggested he isn’t yet comfortable putting the design and engineering study question to vote. “There are a lot of places to splash around and get wet just as safely and cheaply (as a public outdoor pool),” Johnson said. “I think we have a lot more homework to do before this goes to voters.”

Dennis, the chairman, said he wished to iron out the town’s Capital Improvement Plan priorities before focusing on the potential study, while Selectboard members Dennis Brown, Kim Souza and Dick Grassi voiced support for a study vote.

“(Progressing a new pool) has been identified as a need, and I totally support it,” Grassi said. “Let the people speak.”

Jared Pendak can be reached at jpendak@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.