Weymouth Fire Department staff levels are at their lowest level in decades as firefighters face increased demand for their services at Southfield and the town's police force sees a growth in serious crime.
Acting Fire Chief Joseph Davis and Police Chief Richard Grimes brought these concerns Monday night to the Town Council's Public Safety Committee, which sought to quantify what councilors called the town's public safety inadequacies, and also identify potential solutions.
"We've gone backwards for too long," Davis said. "At some point we've got to move forward."
Councilor Ed Harrington led the discussion at Town Hall. He pursued specific personnel goals from each chief and also placed the issue in relief against Weymouth's overall financial difficulties.
Though not advocating himself for a Proposition 2 1/2 override, Harrington suggested that it or another funding source directed by residents may be the only way to solve a funding crunch that reaches across town departments, from the schools to public safety.
"I'll do everything I can within the framework of the town budget," Harrington said. "But the ultimate solution is not going to come from the council, it's not going to come from the mayor, it's going to come from the people."
When Davis joined the fire department in 1975, there were 137 firefighters, five engine companies, two ladder trucks and a rescue squad, he said. As budgets tightened over the years and the mandate has been not to replace retiring firefighters, the numbers have plummeted.
Today the department has 88 firefighters, three engine companies and one ladder truck, stretching resources thinly across town, especially in South Weymouth, Davis said.
"It's not just fires, it's emergencies, car accidents," he said.
If there is a fire somewhere in Weymouth, all available units respond, leaving only mutual aid if another calls pops up, Davis said, and that is if another town has firefighters available. Right now the department only has the capacity to respond to one alarm without assistance.
Ideally, Weymouth would return to the levels from 30 or 40 years ago, Davis said, but for now he would like to see one more engine company put back in service, adding 20 firefighters, and one more ladder truck, adding 12 more.
"We can do the job [with current levels], but I'm not comfortable about South Weymouth," Davis said. "We don't have anything that's even close to there."
To help serve the additional population growth at Southfield, Davis said the department has applied for a federal grant that would temporarily cover an extra engine and 20 firefighters. Funding from the town or South Shore Tri Town would have to cover the costs once the grant ran out. Councilors on Monday night agreed to request extra help from Weymouth's lawmakers.
Police Department staffing levels have similarily declined over the last three decades. Grimes said that there were approximately 115 sworn officers in 1982, when he arrived. Today there are 94 officers and "it's difficult" to cover the town's five sectors effectively, Grimes said.
"I'm given a budget and I'm expected to work with it," he said.
Two years ago, for example, a $400,000 cut meant four less officers and one less traffic supervisor. "The officers are doing considerably more work," Grimes said.
After Harrington pressed Grimes for a specific number he would like the department to reach, the chief said six more officers would be an "adequate start," but that getting back to 115 would be ideal. The department was "functioning well" with that staffing level, he said, without being top-heavy.
Shifting the conversation to the department's interaction with the hundreds of homes now developed in Southfield, Councilor Robert Conlon said he was not happy with the mayor's contract with Tri Town that specifices how much Weymouth is paid for police work.
Each quarter, the department provides numbers on directed patrolling and response calls in Southfield to the mayor's office, which then bills Tri Town, Grimes said. Conlon said the deal pulls officers away from the rest of Weymouth even as serious crime is becoming more prevalent.
Councilor Jane Hackett suggested that the council track revenue associated with police work in Southfield, perhaps to increase the amount Weymouth receives and also to direct extra resources toward public safety.