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Running out of time

More homes, fewer resources leave firefighters struggling to keep up

Patrick Kennedy got lucky. Four years ago, the firefighter was trying to get inside a smoldering Plymouth house when the garage door collapsed, knocking him to the ground.

Kennedy, who was wearing a helmet, was disoriented and in pain, but escaped with just a sprained knee.

The large house, in a remote spot on Cape Cod Bay, was destroyed.

''The first couple of minutes are crucial if you want to save anything," said Kennedy, 50, a lieutenant in Plymouth's department. By the time firefighters arrived on the scene -- nine minutes after the initial alarm -- the home was fully involved in fire, Kennedy said.

Slow response times by firefighters have become increasingly common in Plymouth, which at about 103 square miles is the largest community in Massachusetts. Because of the availability of land, and real estate prices that are still lower than those in communities closer to Boston, it is growing rapidly, with a population of about 55,000. But people who choose to build their dream homes far from traffic-clogged urban areas can also find themselves a long way from a fire station. The fire in which Kennedy was injured occurred in January 2001, about three years before Fire Chief James Pierson began cutting back fire station shifts to save money.

Regional comparisons, Page 6

The tactic has lowered morale and worried firefighters, who see more houses being built long distances from fire stations that are busier every year. Pierson had planned to pull firefighters from the Manomet Fire Station for a month or so beginning Wednesday, to keep Plymouth's other stations open and help close the department's budget shortfall. But when last weekend's blizzard and subsequent storms left the town buried under several feet of snow, he decided to put the plan on hold, the chief said Thursday.

According to a Globe review of structure fires extinguished between 1986 and 2002, 46 percent of communities south of Boston failed to meet national standards for response time. The National Fire Protection Association sets a goal of 6 minutes to respond to 90 percent of fires.

Plymouth and Middleborough, among the area towns falling short of the 90 percent goal, don't have the worst figures. But their declining performances in recent years are significant because of their large size and their population growth rates. Middleborough's on-time rate from 1986 to 2002 was about 83 percent, while Plymouth's hovered around 80 percent. Both towns improved slightly between 1999 and 2002, but figures for 2002 alone show Middleborough's rate at about 77 percent and Plymouth's at 65 percent.

''Offhand, I can't indicate anything that we have in place that would improve those responses," Pierson said. ''So long as we continue to see growth in areas away from fire stations, it's going to take increasingly longer to get to those dwellings. Sometimes the only route to another section of Plymouth is through two other towns."

In Middleborough, the town spent $4.5 million to rebuild its Central Station in 2003 and to build North Station in 2002. Including South Station, which was built in the 1940s, the town of about 72 square miles and 20,000 residents now has three active fire stations. Chief Robert Silva said that should improve response times. But reaching the recommended 90 percent response rate could remain an elusive goal, said Deputy Fire Chief Scott Seifert. ''We'll never make that until we get an East Middleborough station. Honestly, I don't think we'll see [that station] in my career."

On a recent drive along Route 105, where construction is booming, Seifert pointed to the area where Thompson and Plympton streets cross. ''If I had my druthers, we'd have the station at that intersection," he said. A station there would put firefighters closer to Oak Point, a 1,150-unit development for people age 55 and older that is under construction.

From Central Station on North Main Street to the Oak Point gate, the drive is 7 to 8 minutes on a good-weather day, Seifert said, and it takes another 3 to 4 minutes to get to the deepest parts of the complex.

''It does bother me that there [could be] problems that far away," Silva said.

Fatal fires in both towns are rare. In its analysis, the Globe did not find any deaths that resulted from lagging response times, but firefighters attribute much of that to luck.

In Plymouth, where the intermittent station closings have caused tension between Pierson and firefighters, union official Shawn Harmon said it is only a matter of time before a slow response causes the death of a firefighter or civilian. ''They want to play the lottery with people's lives," the Firefighters Local 1768 vice president said of town officials.

Pierson said it is unfair to judge the department only on figures through 2002 -- the Globe studied numbers until that year because it was the last with fire data. The town's seventh station was built in 2002 to serve the massive Pinehills development, an upscale housing area that covers 5 square miles -- about the size of the town of Belmont. The station should improve the department's response times, Pierson said. ''I think the town is getting their arms around this problem," he said.

But Captain Ed Bradley is not so sure. He cited a Nov. 14 incident in the Pinehills in which the parents of a young boy who had hit his head called the department eight minutes after dialing 911 to say they were driving their son to the hospital themselves. ''They said, 'We can't wait anymore,' " Bradley said. The Pinehills station was closed that day, as part of the rotation of coverage, and personnel from the Manomet station, about 7 miles away, had to respond, he said.

Plymouth Town Manager Mark Sylvia said he is asking all town departments, including police and fire, to draw up plans for the next seven years on how to improve services.

Pierson said more fire stations probably will be needed, especially since 60 percent of calls to the department are for medical emergencies, but he also suggested measures that could reduce the possibility of devastating fires, like a law requiring sprinklers in new homes.

''We're not going to be able to replicate the neighborhood station . . . The reality is I don't know if there is enough money," he said. ''We're always going to need firefighter protection . . . but when you really want to talk about saving lives . . . put residential sprinklers in."

Town Planner Valerie Massard said developers in Plymouth are asked to install sprinklers and use fire-resistant materials in new home construction, as well as to build better access roads to subdivisions. But a failing response rate in a booming town is disconcerting, she acknowledged.

''If you're suggesting we're not providing sufficient services to the people who are already here, what can I say?" Massard said. ''It's a big concern."

Maria Cramer can be reached at mcramer@globe.com.

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