Eric Smith, Gloucester’s new fire chief, deserves credit for telling residents right up front that a new plan being advanced by he and Mayor Carolyn Kirk will not be the ultimate, utopian proposal that will allow the city to once again open all four of its fire stations — all the time.
“This certainly won’t open them consistently every day,” Smith said. And he’s no doubt right — especially while the firefighters’ current contract continues to run, as it will through next June 30, the end of the current fiscal year.
But the mayor’s agreement to use at least $246,000 of the city’s $4.8 million free cash certification to boost Fire Department staffing, her commitent to allow a “rainy day” Fire Department fund to add overtime staffing periodically as the year goes forward, and Smith’s commitment to work with new firefighters’ union chief and former interim chief Steve Aiello on a format for restructuring the department’s shifts should at least keep the Bay View Station open far more frequently than it is today. And, most importantly, the advancement of even this basic plan shows that the mayor’s office is willing to give the goal or opening all four stations the priority that this issue needs. That’s the top priority that residents, particularly those in Magnolia, Bay View, Annisquam and Lanesville deserve and have every right to expect.
At its core, the preliminary game plan announced Tuesday by the mayor amounts to funneling more money into Fire Department overtime — hardly an efficient, long-term solution to anything. But the hiring of another firefighter – on top of the laudable hiring of a number of local veterans to firefighting posts in recent weeks — edges the department toward the depth the department needs.
The real steps toward providing residents with the kind of protection they deserve, of course, will come through whatever changes Smith and Aiello can achieve through changing the shifts or rotation system. And officials on all sides should recognize the benefits of potential options, perhaps like a reserve corps like the one that supplements Gloucester’s police force.
But the step announced this week at least represents a step toward a safer overall city — one in which School Street-to-Lanesville or even Concord Street-to Magnolia responses may soon be a thing of the past. That’s a step in the right direction — at last.