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Lawrence Fire Dept. gets $6.6m in US aid

Grant will allow new hires, return of laid-off staff

By John M. Guilfoil
Globe Staff / January 20, 2011

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The beleaguered Lawrence Fire Department received a long-awaited boost yesterday when the US government announced a $6.62 million grant that will allow the city to rehire all of its laid-off firefighters and, for the first time in several years, add new positions.

The department wrote a proposal last year seeking the Department of Homeland Security’s Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response Grants, and in a bipartisan effort, Senators John F. Kerry and Scott Brown, as well as Representative Niki Tsongas, who represents Lawrence, supported the city’s application.

The grant, to be paid over two years, will allow Lawrence to rehire the 23 firefighters laid off since June and to employ 15 more to replace those who have retired recently or have left on disability.

“It’s awesome,’’ said a relieved Brian Murphy, the city’s interim fire chief, who has been at the helm during one of the department’s lowest points in recent history.

Murphy, who celebrated his birthday yesterday, said he could not have asked for a better present than to call back his laid-off firefighters.

“This grant will put us a baseline level, right where we should be,’’ he said.

Murphy said he was also grateful for the political support.

“Our local firefighters put their lives on the line every day to protect our communities, and it’s our duty to keep them safe,’’ Kerry said in a statement.

“Firefighters risk their lives day in and day out,’’ echoed Brown. “I’m grateful for their service and pleased they are receiving these resources.’’

“This is excellent news for the City of Lawrence,’’ Tsongas, a Lowell Democrat, said in a statement. “Our local communities deserve an engaged federal partner, especially during these difficult economic times.’’

The city laid off 23 of its 100 firefighters last summer and closed three of its six firehouses amidst a $25 million budget deficit. Even with a $35 million state bailout last spring, the firefighters, dozens of police officers, and 32 teachers got pink slips last June.

The Lawrence Fire Department has frequently called on smaller neighboring towns for help, straining their fire departments as well.

In November, 10 other communities had to respond to Lawrence to help fight a three-alarm fire. The first Lawrence firefighters who arrived on the scene heard that people were trapped and rushed inside, but the flames suddenly shot up because there were not enough firefighters to ventilate the fire from the roof. The firefighters were forced to evacuate the building, but no one else was inside.

The house was destroyed. The fire broke out on Bellevue Street, a short walk from one of the shuttered firehouses.

The federal grant promises to bring relief. Murphy said the funds should allow him to reopen all three closed firehouses.

“This is nothing but good for the city, nothing but good for the department, and nothing but good for the surrounding communities, who we’ve had to rely on for mutual aid with three closed firehouses,’’ said firefighter Patrick Driscoll, president of the local fire union.

Since 2005, the program, known as Safer, has given hundreds of millions of dollars to fire departments nationwide to help hiring and recruitment.

In 2009, the Fall River Fire Department received the largest Safer grant awarded to date, $10.8 million, to counter massive layoffs there.

Hull and Weymouth also received grants with Lawrence this fiscal year.

“The Safer grants are the lifeline of urban fire department staffing when economic conditions like this exist,’’ said State Fire Marshal Stephen D. Coan. “This grant will enhance the safety of the firefighters and the community and bring the department in line with national standards.’’

John M. Guilfoil can be reached at jguilfoil@globe.com.