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An independent assessment of Williamstown's fire station says it's too small for a modern station. The department's trucks actually have to be customized to fit into bays that are smaller than contemporary fire stations.

Williamstown Fire District Presents Organizational Assessment to Public

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
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New Prudential Committee members Richard Reynolds, left, and David Moresi follow Wednesday's presentation.
 
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — A consultant from New Hampshire confirmed Wednesday an argument that Williamstown Fire District officials have been making to voters for more than a decade.
 
The current fire station on Water Street is too small to accommodate the district's current needs, and the only viable option is to build a new facility, the senior public safety consultant for Municipal Resources Inc., told the Prudential Committee in a public presentation at town hall.
 
"Modernization modifications really can't be done to that Water Street fire station that will give the community a return on investment," MRI's Shawn Murray said. "It's so old, you'd literally have to tear it down to the foundation and build in some other way. But there's no room for it."
 
That is why the Prudential Committee, which governs the fire district, a separate municipal entity apart from town government, pressed for the acquisition of a Main Street parcel that one day can be home to a new station.
 
It took three special fire district meetings and considerable persuasion to convince the voters to approve the purchase of the so-called Lehovec property, a move that came only after the town and fire district formed a joint committee to look at whether it was feasible to build a public safety building to house both the Williamstown Police and Fire Department.
 
Since then, the Police Department has been moved into its new home on Simonds Road while the Fire District contemplates its next step to begin a building project.
 
The MRI study of the district's need is a piece of the Prudential Committee likely will need when it goes back to the voters.
 
The study is the result of an ad hoc study group that included the then three members of the recently expanded Prudential Committee, Town Manager Jason Hoch, Elaine Neely of the town's Finance Committee and James Kolesar, Williams College's assistant to the president for community and government affairs.
 
Hoch, Neely and Kolesar attended Wednesday's presentation, along with Prudential Committee members Ed Briggs, Richard Reynolds and David Moresi. Reynolds and Moresi this fall were elected to the committee as it expanded to five members.
 
In about an hour, Murray went through the highlights of a comprehensive 74-page "organizational assessment" prepared by MRI. The report covers the town's needs for the fire service, its chain of command, funding sources for the district, its need to replace equipment and apparatus and a looming need to address the fire department's staffing needs.
 
A big part of the report focuses on the station, and Murray pointed to several photos in the report that illustrate the current facility's insufficiency.
 
The photos depict fire trucks that are butted right up against the bay doors — trucks that already have been custom ordered to fit the smaller building, an accommodation that adds to the cost of replacing apparatus.
 
"There's a vast difference between a 1950s station and what the department needs today," Murray said.
 
He pointed out that because of space issues, the Fire Department needs to store equipment in the vehicle bay alongside the trucks, which is problematic.
 
"Protective clothing is right in the apparatus bay," Murray said. "They have a system that plugs into the exhaust [of the fire engines], but it doesn't get rid of all of it. As you pull into the station, it's putting diesel exhaust in … that can damage the protective clothing.
 
"The cylinders with the air the firefighters breath in [during a fire] is exposed to the diesel gas. They do have the air tested, but the potential [for contamination] is there."
 
Replacing the station is one issue for the district. Replacing the current crop of call-volunteer firefighters is something else again.
 
Like many small departments, Williamstown has one full-time employee, the fire chief. MRI's report notes the difficulty departments nationwide are having attracting men and women who want to go through the extensive training necessary for a position that involves being available on a moment's notice to respond to the occasional incident for an hourly stipend they only receive for time in service.
 
"MRI is all over New England and recently worked in Pennsylvania in a county that has something like 700 departments," Murray said. "Of those 700 fire departments, 90 percent are volunteers. They're really struggling now because it isn't easy getting people to come in anymore. Retirement and retention is going to be a concern for you.
 
"Like a lot of communities across the United States, the … increase in the aging population that require emergency medical service and the decrease in the availability of on-call personnel is not sustainable."
 
MRI recommends the Williamstown Fire District consider adding more paid staff, a move that would impact the district's annual operating budget at the same time it seeks voters' approval for a large capital project, the fire station.
 
To cushion the blow, Murray recommended that the district look into federal SAFER (Staffing for Adequate Fire & Emergency Response) grants, which can pick up the salary of an added firefighter for three years if a community commits to paying the wages for at least two years.
 
"After five years, if everything is going well, hopefully you keep them," Chief Craig Pedercini said, backing up Murray's point about the grant.
 

Shawn Murray of Municipal Resources Inc. presents his firm's findings.
In addition to talking about the Fire Department's needs, MRI's study analyzes the town's need for a fire department, making arguments that might counter concerns about investing in a new station at a time when, nationwide, incidents of fires show a slight decline.
 
Williamstown has a couple of features that offer particular challenges to the Fire Department, Murray said. The number of high-value homes located outside the district covered by fire hydrants is one issue. The multi-story dormitories and brand-new unified science center at Williams College is another.
 
MRI classified the town, overall, has having a moderate to high level of risk for fires.
 
"That doesn't mean that the town of Williamstown is going to explode or implode," Murray said. "But what it does mean is you have enough buildings and infrastructure that the potential is there for a high hazard, low frequency event to happen.
 
"You need to have that in the back of your mind when you're building your future plans down the road."

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Williams Anthropologist Receives Grant to Support Climate Change Research

WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Kim Gutschow, lecturer in religion and anthropology at Williams College, has been awarded a $100,000 grant from the National Geographic Society to fund a project titled "Climate Change Adaptation: By the People & For the People" in the Ladakh region of India.

The grant was co-written and co-conceived with Robin Sears, research associate in anthropology at Williams, and includes an international team comprised of Gutschow, Sears and four Ladakhi individuals who have been active in climate change adaptation and social justice work for the past 30 years.

Climate change and modernization have introduced unprecedented risk in high-altitude Himalayan societies such as Ladakh, which spans the upper Indus watershed. Gutschow and Sears will direct a team of Ladakhi youth and women to conduct research and advocate for specific interventions that can best address the local impacts of climate change in their region, such as water shortages from variably shrinking glaciers and reduced snowfall; declining food security due to rising temperatures and more frequent locust plagues; and occasional glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs) or floods from extreme cloudbursts.

The project examines local strategies for coping with the effects of climate change and modernization as men and youth have left villages to seek jobs and education in urban centers, leaving the bulk of farming in the hands of women and the elderly.

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