Dec. 19–PEABODY — The expanded Peabody Fire Department will go into action on Jan. 1, according to Chief Steve Pasdon.
Changes urged by Mayor Ted Bettencourt and approved recently by the City Council include the promotion of eight new lieutenants and hiring of four additional full-time firefighters. Pasdon expects the new lieutenants will all be found within the department’s current ranks, but said the promotions won’t be made until Civil Service test results are received in the spring.
In the meantime, he said, firefighters with at least three years of experience on the job will rotate into the lieutenant’s position. The four new firefighters, he expects, can be quickly found on the city’s list of reserve firefighters. The ranks of the department will increase by four to 107.
All this matters because there is general agreement that staffing at the city’s firehouses has been woefully inadequate.
Allowing two-man teams for Engine 4 on Tremont Street and Engine 3 on Prospect Street has created a dangerous situation, according to local officials. So starting in the New Year, every station will have three firefighters, including an acting lieutenant in a supervisory role. The sole exception will be the Lowell Street station in West Peabody, which will have four people on duty at all times.
Pasdon made a strong case for this to city councilors, describing the potential for trouble when only two firefighters arrive to battle a blaze. “One person has to operate the pump,” he said. “That leaves one person. And you do not send one person in alone. One person can easily get lost inside.”
Recalling studies that have linked inadequate staffing to stress on firefighters, he referenced the tragic loss of Peabody firefighter Jim Rice, who died of a heart attack while battling a blaze at a multifamily home on Hancock Street.
“On Dec. 2011, Peabody lost one of its own,” said Pasdon. “I don’t want that to happen to anyone again.”
The chief attended the Dec. 10 meeting backed by a large contingent of firefighters who watched from the rear of Wiggin Auditorium and broke into applause when the councilors voted in favor of the change.
Bettencourt told councilors the changes were part of a contract settlement with the firefighters’ union. In addition to the staffing changes, that settlement established raises from 2015 to 2017 of 1.75, 2 and 2 percent each year.
“We should be very proud,” he added, “of the efforts we’ve made for the safety of our fire department.” In addition to the new staffing, the mayor has overseen the purchase of new breathing apparatus and a new truck.
“I commend you for taking this step,” said Councilor Tom Gould. “I’m shocked we haven’t done this sooner.”
“People in Ward 3 are going to be thrilled at this,” said Councilor Jim Moutsoulas, who represents the ward where the Tremont Street station is located.
Speaking to the Salem News, Pasdon noted the historic central fire station, across from City Hall, is staffed with only three firefighters and is handicapped by its outmoded size and design.
The department’s ladder truck, for example, doesn’t fit into a facility built in 1873 that was originally designed to accommodate horse-drawn apparatus. The ladder has to be stationed elsewhere. At some point, he predicted, the city will have to consider building a new station.
“We’re lucky to have a mayor who is invested in the department,” Pasdon said. “I can’t commend the mayor and the City Council enough.”
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