Station closures had already drawn ire of City Council after November death
By Robert Mills
February 11, 2021
LOWELL — When a fire that claimed the life of a 77-year-old man and severely injured three other people broke out early Wednesday morning, the closest fire engine in Lowell — located less than three blocks away — was out of service. It was the second time in less than four months that someone in Lowell died in a fire that broke out while the nearest fire engine was unavailable. And two men died in a similar fire on Bridge Street in 2010, as two of the closest fire trucks were out of service at the time. And just hours before Wednesday morning’s fire spread to two adjacent structures, displaced 44 people and forced firefighters and police to make over a half-dozen rescues, the City Council was told that efforts to reduce such station closures were moving forward.
City Manager Eileen Donoghue said Fire Chief Phil Charron has “done the best he can” to reduce such closures, recently reducing them to about one closure per night, whereas previously as many as two or three closures per night were not uncommon. The issue already riled city councilors in November, after 63-year-old Jose Nieves died in a fire in his apartment at the Father Johns Medicine Building on Market Street as the nearest fire engine — in that case Engine 3 from the Civic Center Fire Station — was unavailable.
Councilor Rita Mercier suggested then that perhaps a life could have been saved if Engine 3 had been in service that night, and Charron did not disagree. “I cannot tell you definitively that with Engine 3 being in service we would have saved that man, but I can tell you that a firefighter’s job is made harder by not enough firefighters being on hand in the initial phase of a fire,” Charron told the City Council in November.
The 7-page report Charron and Donoghue presented to the council Tuesday night was in response to a motion made in November that sought to have such station closures reduced. But as the fire at 98 Westford St., broke out Wednesday about 3:30 a.m., Engine 2, stationed less than three blocks away on Branch Street, was closed. Ladder 2, which operates out of the same Branch Street station, was open, and was the first fire apparatus at the scene. Firefighters on Ladder 2 rescued people from the flames, but ladder trucks do not carry a water supply, so they had to make the rescues without immediately having water to beat back flames. Other fire engines soon arrived at the scene to provide such water, but not before precious time was lost since Engine 2 could have gotten to the fire much sooner. The closure of Engine 2 also meant that fewer on-duty firefighters than usual were in the Branch Street station.
Charron did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment Wednesday, but he told councilors Tuesday night that he plans to begin hiring more firefighters to reduce the station closures following a year in which hiring was “stunted” for reasons related to the pandemic. “It’s important to remember that the hiring process was stunted over the course of last year, especially in the middle and towards the end,” Charron said. “The academy was not having their Firefighter 1 and 2 classes. It was very difficult if not impossible to get physicals scheduled, so hiring was stunted because of that reason.” Charron said the Fire Department has funding for 213 firefighters but is currently down to 199. He said he has initiated the process of hiring six new firefighters.
Mercier, who put forward the motion asking for information about the brownouts and a plan to address them in November, asked Charron and Donoghue Tuesday night to look into using CARES Act and FEMA grant funding for hiring to a full complement of firefighters. Donoghue said Wednesday CARES Act funding is already being used to reduce station closures caused by COVID-19, but that 45 firefighters have had to quarantine because of the virus, which has been another part of the reason closures continue. “At one point there were 17 firefighters (in quarantine) at the same time,” Donoghue said. “It’s been a scheduling challenge for the chief, but he’s done the best he can.”
Councilor Daniel Rourke also noted at Tuesday’s meeting that a new round of federal SAFER grants for fire staffing recently became available. Charron said the last SAFER grant that allowed the city to hire four firefighters has been extended, and the Fire Department plans to apply for up to another six hires through the new round of grants.
Lowell Firefighter’s Union President Shawn Sirois was among those who worked at the fire on Wednesday, and he was not immediately available for comment Wednesday night. When the station closure issue came up in November, following Nieves’ death, city councilors made it clear the issue had to be addressed. “Obviously this is a big problem and the city needs to help the Fire Department even more,” Councilor Sokhary Chau said in November.
Mercier, often a budget hawk who rails against tax increases and bloated budgets, said in November that this is an issue that must be addressed even if it means spending more on overtime costs. “I know the cost of keeping all stations open is expensive, but what is it worth? What is a person’s life worth,” she said. “Public safety should be our number one priority, whether it be police or fire. The public is at greater risk if we skimp on safety.”