By John Anderson
In Part II of this series, the 2003 fire at the Lodge at Eddy Pond was mentioned as the catalyst for hiring more career personnel, but another fire at the Lodge in March of 2006 was a much different story. Call firefighters Lionel Berthiaume and Stephen Nordberg were staffing Engine 1 in Station 2 on West St. that cold evening, and 4 career firefighters were at headquarters when a fire alarm was called in for the assisted living facility.
When Engine 1 crested the hill by Home Depot, they reported “fire showing” at the Lodge. The call was quickly upgraded to a second alarm, and mutual aid companies were on their way along with off-duty Auburn firefighters. 100 residents were safely evacuated without incident, the fire in a single third floor apartment was suppressed, and the clean up began.
One of the factors that prevented a disaster during this event was the presence of fire sprinklers on the outside of the building and in the attic. When the building was being constructed, Fire Chief Roger Belhumeur insisted they be installed. Since the Lodge is a wood framed building and the fire started on an exterior porch, the incident could have been substantially worse without sprinklers.
The Auburn Fire Rescue Department has a history of innovation. Long before the carbon monoxide incident at a Douglas school sent a group of students to the hospital, all Auburn Public School buildings had CO detectors installed. Furthermore, three local fast food restaurants that have a carbon dioxide tank to provide carbonation to fountain drinks have CO2 detectors in case there is a harmful leak. While legislation typically comes from bad events, the AFRD’s suggestions for things like detectors have generally been well received. Aggressive fire prevention has paid off for Auburn citizens.
The increase in career firefighters has definitely helped to deal with the call volume, but Chief Coleman says that ideal circumstances would have a larger staff on duty 24/7. Currently the minimum staffing for the department is 6 firefighters, which allows them to staff two paramedic-level ambulances, and one engine with 2 members. Ideally, the Chief would love to see the department’s minimum staffing at 7 which would allow for the engine to be staffed with 3 members consistently. Full time staffing allows the department to achieve average response times of 3-4 minutes over 90% of the time. Coleman said, “Early detection is getting us to the scene quickly, and we’re putting the fires out.”
The fire department has an anticipated budget of $2.6 million for FY2017 that begins on July 1st, but $800,000 will come from ambulance receipts. Additionally, extra ambulance income is kept in an account to fund EMS training and equipment. When the next ambulance is purchased, it will involve no funds from the town’s capital budget.
Chief Belhumeur was responsible for bringing the ambulance into the fire department, and it started with a seminar on public/private partnerships he attended at an International Association of Fire Chiefs’ convention. Upon his return, negotiations with Patriot Ambulance began, and Auburn firefighters were responding to medical calls shortly thereafter. He said, “I’m amazed where we are today. They’ve come a long way.”
Belhumeur also told Auburn Mass Daily, “This department is always pushing forward, but they need a full complement of firefighters to keep it going. Chief Coleman is constantly making improvements, and it’s not just for the comfort of the firefighters. It’s to get the job done.”
If you are around an Auburn firehouse at the 8am shift change, you will rarely encounter well-rested firefighters after their 24-hour shift. These professionals work hard and are either training or serving the community in other ways when not on emergency calls.
Chief Belhumeur summed it up nicely, “Auburn is a fabulous town, and public safety is great. The town’s leadership team is the best.”
Editor’s Note: John Anderson was a call member of the Auburn Fire Department from 1993 until he was injured on duty in 2006. His experience includes time as a firefighter, emergency medical technician and fire investigator with multiple agencies in both the public and private sectors. He also authored the report on the Worcester Cold Storage Fire for the United States Fire Administration after the 1999 tragedy.