Weighing fire department needs, future

Monday January 14, 2013

BENNINGTON -- A single smaller "rescue pumper" to replace two fire trucks in the Bennington Fire Department fleet is meant to ensure prompt action upon arrival. Fire Chief Steve Crawford said the new apparatus will roll out first and be equipped to deal with myriad incidents including fires, motor vehicle accidents, and hazardous material cleanup.

"When the truck pulls up, you have the equipment no matter what the scenario," Crawford told town officials, illustrating his point with the situation of a car crash that catches fire. "If you have the wrong equipment ... you stand there for what seems like forever."

Meanwhile, a later conversation broached by an outgoing Select Board member renewed talk of a merger of two area fire departments. Christopher Oldham, who recently announced he would not be seeking a fourth term to the board in March, brought the idea of an advisory ballot article to Saturday's budget meeting asking voters whether to consolidate the Bennington and Bennington Rural fire departments.

While the former department is organized through the town of Bennington under the discretion of the Select Board, the Bennington Rural Fire Department is its own entity governed by a prudential committee and with a separate budget voted on by taxpayers in its fire district. While rural crews cover the outskirts of Bennington, both often respond to the same calls under mutual aid guidelines.

Prefacing his idea by pointing to the high cost of equipment and the difficulty of recruitment, Oldham said a ballot article would just begin to gauge the public. Acknowledging past talk, board Chairman Joseph L. Krawczyk Jr. said the topic required study and he was not sure the board could get up to speed in time for March. "It's absolutely an important question," he added.

Board member Jason Morrissey characterized a ballot article as an "antagonistic" first step, and he mentioned the area's third volunteer department in North Bennington, where he resides.

"It's almost up to the two fire departments to get together and start the conversation," said board Vice-Chairwoman Sharyn Brush. That was the general consensus the last time the Select Board raised the topic in December 2005, according to Banner archives. (Krawczyk, Oldham and Brush sat on the board at that time.)

Pumper would downsize fleet

Saturday's brief talk followed at the end of the morning budget meeting without representatives from either department to weigh in. Earlier in the meeting, Crawford and Bennington Police Chief Paul Doucette said the town department's request to downsize to the single pumper would defray some future expense, given routine maintenance and service costs for two 2004 fire trucks slated to be sold. "It would save taxpayers in the long run," Crawford said, given fewer required pump checks and tire purchases and the new vehicle's included bumper-to-bumper warranty.

Doucette, the town's public safety director, said he supported the purchase because of the envisioned flexibility. The new truck would have a small pumper and also enough room to fit an assortment of gear. "That truck would go out on every call," said Crawford, who tallied 247 calls in calendar year 2012.

The pumper truck is a $560,000 proposition, but with the sale of the two old trucks, and the use of reserves, the purchase would be financed over a 15-year repayment schedule with the first payment not due until the following fiscal year 2015. Town Manager Stuart Hurd was asked to determine the amount of reserves needed to bring the truck's annual payment to approximately $30,000, which Hurd estimated would have a negligible effect on the overall tax rate in future years. Following along a vehicle replacement plan, the next fire apparatus purchase will prove just as sizable, however: Replacement of the department's 1997 ladder truck in fiscal year 2018.

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