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Responding to building fires: a tale of 2 cities

Valerie Fay knows the fearsome power of fire when it gains the upper hand.

In December 1991, the Gloucester woman fled her condominium as flames raced through nine nearby shops and wind-whipped sparks threatened her building.

Firefighters said they could have extinguished the blaze sooner if the Magnolia fire station, just two blocks away, had not been temporarily closed due to voters' rejection of a tax increase to staff it.

Full report of response times, Pages 6-7.

Instead, crews were dispatched from the next-closest station -- eight minutes away.

Eleven years later, fire struck again, and this time Fay wasn't so lucky. Her condo burned from the roof down while two firefighters, the only ones manning the first engine on the scene, fought in vain, lacking the manpower and water pressure needed to get a foothold. Fay lost everything.

''Gloucester is probably one of the worst [full-time departments in the state] as far as staffing and response times," said Robert McCarthy, president of the Professional Fire Fighters of Massachusetts union. ''It's a disaster waiting to happen."

Gloucester, like many communities north of Boston, has responded to tough economic times by laying off firefighters and shutting stations.

But Gloucester's cuts stand out. Among the region's 19 communities with full-time fire departments, Gloucester has the slowest response rate from 1986 to 2002, barely meeting industry standards, and is getting slower, according to the most recent National Fire Incident Reporting System records reviewed by the Globe.

Gloucester's firefighters have a lot of ground to cover in the region's second largest city in square miles. Yet the largest, Haverhill, has one of the best track records.

The two cities, with working-class centers and newer, upscale housing on the outskirts, are similar in many respects, including median family income, [Gloucester, $65,474 for 2004; Haverhill, $66,945] and the average number of building fires fought each year [186 for each]. And both are sprawling cities, Gloucester covering 26 square miles and Haverhill 35. But the two are strikingly different when the fire alarm sounds. Among the reasons:

Haverhill uses a central dispatch for police and fire, while Gloucester relies on a system that transfers fire calls after they are screened by police, losing precious time.

Haverhill staffs a minimum of three firefighters per engine. Gloucester usually has just two, hampering efforts to rush water lines to burning buildings.

From 1987 to 2003, Haverhill increased its Fire Department funding, per capita, by 7 percent, from $122 to $131, during a period when the city's spending on other municipal budgets was shrinking. Over the same time, Gloucester decreased fire spending by 4 percent per capita from $149 to $143, while other municipal spending jumped 28 percent.

''I have been trying for years to change the mentality," said Gloucester Fire Chief Barry McKay.

Today, two of Gloucester's four stations, Magnolia and Bay View, are shuttered much of the time, again because voters rejected a tax increase last summer to keep them open. The city, however, did beef up its substandard water pressure near Fay's Magnolia condo. The Ocean Terrace complex was rebuilt after the June 2002 fire.

''We have this great sprinkler system now in our building, but we don't have a firehouse," said Fay, 50. ''It's terribly unsettling."

After many losing battles to keep stations open, McKay recently pitched a controversial consolidation plan that would permanently close two of his city's four stations -- Magnolia to the south and West Gloucester -- to build one halfway in-between. The plan would increase staffing to four firefighters per engine, the industry standard, but would add as much as two minutes to already slow response times in several areas, McKay said. He is slated to present more details, including the proposal's cost, to the City Council in mid-February.

Gloucester has long grappled with tough geography. Its 26 square miles are spread over several peninsulas, impeding quick travel. Records show neighborhoods in these areas -- Magnolia, Bay View, and East Gloucester -- face the slowest fire response times. The area with the highest number of slow response times is East Gloucester, full of narrow roads and mansions along its point. It hasn't had a fire station since the city sold its crumbling building in the early 1990s to a private developer.

Industry standards, set by the National Fire Protection Association, say full-time departments should have firefighters at a blaze within six minutes from the time a caller dials 911. Full-time departments are expected to meet that standard 90 percent of the time. Public records show about two-thirds of the communities north of Boston -- including some that rely on part-timers -- exceeded that mark from 1986 to 2002, the most recent data available.

From 1986 to 1998, Gloucester's on-time record has hit the minimum standard, 90 percent, and has slipped below that level every year since 1999.

Increased demand for firefighters to handle medical emergencies -- often 50 percent of a department's calls -- and booming development far from stations has slowed response times for many departments since the late 1990s.

Despite those challenges, Haverhill is among a small batch of departments north of Boston that has consistently made it to building fires in six minutes or less more than 98 percent of the time through 2002, records show.

Fire chiefs say speed is critical because a blaze doubles in size roughly every minute. It is also crucial when responding to medical calls.

''Brain death starts in four to six minutes if you are in cardiac arrest," Haverhill Acting Fire Chief Lewis Poore Jr. said. ''Our goal is under six minutes."

Still, the 28-year fire veteran is uneasy. Haverhill's population jumped 15 percent during the 1990s and much of the recent growth has been on the city's once-rural outskirts, especially west of Interstate 495. But Haverhill's four manned fire stations are near the downtown -- at least six minutes away from several newer neighborhoods.

''We are on borrowed time," said Poore.

Firefighters last fall agreed to a cut in overtime pay to boost staffing levels and reopen the city's Bradford station, closed on and off for more than a year due to budget cuts.

Even with Bradford reopened, Poore says two more full-time stations -- for a total of six -- are needed to protect his sprawling, 35-square-mile city. He would place them out toward Haverhill's faster-growing eastern and western borders.

Haverhill has about a dozen part-time firefighters in these outskirts, half living near the city's eastern edge, known as Rocks Village, and the rest on the western front, called Ayers Village. Each village has an unmanned station, where the part-timers report when called for duty. Most hold full-time jobs and are unavailable during the day. When they are, the equipment can be shaky. The Ayers station has not had a working fire engine in more than two years.

That was the case on July 4, 1994, when a house in the village on Crystal Street caught fire.

''I made a run for the fire station, and I went to the pumper we had to respond with and there was a note on the steering wheel saying not to take it," recalls part-timer Charles Reynolds.

So he jumped in his 1991 Dodge Dynasty and raced to the scene about a quarter-mile away. The family had escaped, but Reynolds dashed in to save the cats. While waiting seven minutes for the first engine to arrive from downtown, Reynolds said he started fighting the flames with the closest liquid he could find -- a jar of juice on the kitchen counter.

The house was heavily damaged.

A year later, the DeMarco family moved in, after buying the home at a bargain price. Fire safety was not on their list of criteria for a new home.

''You want a house in a nice neighborhood, safe for your children to grow up," said Dorothy DeMarco.

Despite the house's history, DeMarco had no idea the Ayers station around the corner was not staffed and did not have an engine, should fire strike again.

''I can't say I thought about it much," DeMarco said. ''I always assumed if anything happened, we would be protected."

Kay Lazar can be reached a klazar@globe.com.

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