CHARLESTOWN, N.H. — Six weeks ahead of Town Meeting Day, the Charlestown Fire Department is fighting to get its message concerning the need to replace the #2 engine out to voters. Despite feeling confident about the rationale for the purchase, town firefighters worry whether enough voters will hear it.
On Tuesday, March 10, Charlestown voters will consider a warrant article to appropriate $576,764.50 to replace the department’s 1991 American LaFrance, a 29-year-old pumper truck whose outmoded design no longer complies with national fire safety standards. The department seeks to purchase a new Ferrara Custom Pump Truck for a total cost of $616,764.50. The local Firefight Association will contribute $40,000 from its own funds to reduce the cost.
This is the department’s second consecutive year seeking voter approval. Last year voters defeated a similar warrant article.
This past Sunday, the Charlestown Fire Department held a two-hour open house at the station for community members to learn more about the proposal. But no residents — outside department personnel — arrived.
The department plans to host another open house on Sunday, March 1, from 12 p.m. to 2 p.m.
A clash over costs
One communication challenge facing Charlestown firefighters is to counter common misperceptions shared on social media, such as the Charlestown NH Community Forum on Facebook, that dismisses the urgency to replace the truck.
“People who just follow Facebook are not getting the whole story,” said Deputy Chief Mark LaFlam.
For example, a number of residents argue that the #2 engine only ran nine times last year to fire emergencies. But, LaFlam said that lack of use was because of the vehicle’s lack of reliability.
The #2 engine’s cab design poses considerable health and safety risk to the firefighters it carries. The seats only have lap-belts, when modern standards require shoulder straps. The cab has an open back, which exposes firefighters to both the elements and excessively high-noise decibels produced by the engine and sirens.
The town’s own ordinance limits the noise from externally-mounted heating or air units of 70 decibels or less, according to Charlestown Fire Chief Charlie Baraly. Yet, the #2 engine produces a level of 80 decibels alone when running inside the station. For a firefighter riding next to the engine, the level increases to 90 decibels, and 100 decibels when accompanied by the siren or air horn, due to the cab’s lack of soundproofing.
“Firefighters stationed by the engine cannot communicate with other riders when the engine is running,” Baraly said.
According to current National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards, fire apparatus should provide fully-enclosed seating for its riders and bright-red seat belts for all seats. Additionally, the NFPA recommends that any vehicle over 25 years old that was not manufactured to meet the association’s current safety standards should be replaced.
While the NFPA standards are not laws, these standards regularly inform the legal system when deciding civil cases, as well as the insurance industry, according to LaFlam.
“Liability should be a major source of concern to the town,” said Matt Yeatman of Adirondack Emergency Vehicle Group, a dealer of emergency vehicles. “People who worry about the costs now, imagine the costs if something happens and opens the doors to a lawsuit against the town. People don’t think about what can happen until it happens. It’s amazing what [legal teams] will do when something happens.”
Another safety advantage of the newly sought vehicle is the cab’s ability to withstand damage from impact, whether from a vehicle rollover, collision or a falling tree limb.
“Our cab has a roll-cage built into them, so god forbid it ever did roll over, it will help protect the riders,” Yeatman said.
Yeatman said that the new vehicle’s cab is constructed from a 3.16 inch aluminum gauge. The metal is more lightweight than the steel used in the current #2’s cab, but is much thicker and stronger.
An outmoded apparatus also risks to lower the town’s fire safety rating, a number used by home insurers to establish insurance rates, according to LaFlam.
The department proposes paying for the new engine over a 10-year period, in annual installments of $66,321.57 with an interest rate of 2.96%. LaFlam said that the estimated cost per taxpayer would be about $23.
The engine cost is about $35,000 more than last year’s proposal. The department said that it anticipated a 3% increase due to annual cost inflation, but the impact of U.S. tariffs increased the total cost by 8%.