Chemicals, cramped quarters: Fire Chief seeks new station

May 31, 2018

Diesel exhaust from the fire engines at the Mattapoisett Fire Department spread upstairs.

There's no way to wash toxic chemicals off of fire gear or clothing at the station.

When firefighters are on call in a storm, more than 10 people try to nap in a small public area, and share one tiny bathroom.

There's no handicap access to the building. The stairs in the building are steep and narrow, leading to falls.

When it comes to the safety of first responders, the Fire Department has some needs, and Mattapoisett Fire Chief Andrew Murray says its time to fix the issues, starting with a new station.

Voters recently approved money to fund design plans for a new building at Town Meeting.

"A new fire station has been an idea for the last 30 years," Murray said. "There's even a site, an open field owned by the town, next to the Mattapoisett Police Station. But the timing hasn't been quite right yet."

One of his primary concerns is the lack of space for a special decontaminating washer, which would remove toxic chemicals and carcinogens from fire gear and clothing.

"Right now, there's no place for a washer like that," he said. "So we come back to the station contaminated, and we recontaminate ourselves every time we put that gear back on."

It's no small problem.

"Several prior officers have been victims of cancer," Murray confirmed. "We're always exposed to toxins and dangers, whether it's a car crash, or a fire, carbon monoxide, severe weather or just someone needing help. Whatever the accident or crisis, we're there first."

With no shower at the station, the firefighters also potentially bring the toxins home to their families or transfer contamination to visitors of the station.

Carcinogens aren't the only issue. The Fire Department responds to a myriad of medical calls.

"We're very respectful," Murray said with a grimace, "but sometimes we're contaminated with human fluid and matter, and that goes home as well."

The on-call quarters are above the garage that houses the fire trucks; whenever the trucks are taken out and returned, the diesel exhaust floats upward.

"We clean up regularly, but you can see the gray diesel exhaust remains on the windowsills and in the main rooms all the time," Murray said.

Another problem with the current station? A severe lack of space.

"Right now, Fire Department equipment is spread amongst six different locations," Murray explained. "We keep the most essential equipment at the main headquarters. If we get to a scene, assess it, and decide we need something else, that can be a 15 or 20 minute delay."

He added that there's no need for new equipment within the department. "We have all the equipment we need. I'd just like to have it all under one roof, so there's no delay in getting extra equipment to a fire, or to the scene of an accident."

Murray said it's too early to tell exactly what the design will look like, or what the total project might cost. His priority, he stressed, is the safety of the residents and first responders.

A temporary tax increase (debt exclusion) to pay for work at an elementary school will soon be finished, he said.

"We'd like to 'replace' that retiring payment," he said, "because it would keep costs where they are now, rather than adding more."

Murray said his goal is to bring correct information for voters at a future Town Meeting. "We want a solid idea of what the building will cost, and what it will look like, so voters will know exactly what they're getting," he said.

On-call firefighters' pay falls into the single digits after deductions, Murray noted.

"They work for pride, and not for money," the chief said. "The least we could do is offer them somewhere safe to work out of."

As a gesture of pride in where they work, firefighters also do all of the landscaping and upkeep at the fire station. It's something that will continue at the new station, should it be built.

"We take pride in all the services we provide," Murray said. "Pride is what drives people to do their best work."