Berlin Fire Department to join mutual aid district

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BERLIN — The Berlin City Council voted unanimously Oct. 11 to have the city join a mutual aid district that includes departments in Gorham and Milan.

According to Berlin Fire Chief James Watkins, the city was the only remaining city in New Hampshire that is not a member of a mutual aid entity.

The issue was first discussed during the board’s Sept. 7 work session, when several council members asked Watkins to prepare a presentation on the subject.

At that time, Council Member Michael Rozek asked Watkins whether the city would be eligible for more federal money if the department was a “mutual aid” department.

Watkins said the department may be eligible for more funds depending upon how the mutual aid entity is structured.

The city council members wanted to look at the possibility of joining  a district to help provide funding for much-needed improvements to fire department buildings and equipment.

In the Oct. 11 work session, Watkins gave five pros and three cons to joining such a district.

Among the pros, he said such a district would help with resource sharing and provide Berlin with personnel, apparatus and equipment when needed.

Watkins said joining a district would help with information sharing. He said the North Country mutual aid district meets quarterly and that such meetings include the fire marshal and representatives from the New Hampshire Fire Academy. As Berlin is not a member, Watkins said he misses out on information discussed at the meetings.

Joining a mutual aid district would also make more grants available and would allow for more formalized agreements between the communities.

Watkins said Gorham, Berlin and Milan now operate under informal agreements.

The final pro Watkins mentioned is that if the district was not benefiting the city, as an annual commitment, the city could easily chose to withdraw after one year.

Watkins listed overtime costs among the potential disadvantages.

He said over the past five years the city has averaged 7.2 calls to outside communities at a cost of $3,240 per year. But he said the city is already spending that money as the department has been helping other communities even without a mutual aid agreement. Watkins said he doesn’t expect more than 10 mutual aid calls per year.

The other two cons were what Watkins called the misconceptions — one, that joining the mutual aid district would reduce Berlin staffing requirements and two, that mutual aid firefighters can replace Berlin Fire Department personnel.

Council member Lucie Remillard said the purpose in entering into any mutual aid agreement would not be to reduce staff.

Rozek asked Watkins what decision he would make if it was up to him.

Watkins said he would recommend joining a mutual aid district for a three-year trial period.

Remillard favored a three-year trial period. She said in looking at the cons, the only one she saw was the overtime cost and she added that the city is expending those funds anyway, so she didn’t see a drawback.

Mayor Paul Grenier asked how many on-call firefighters the department has. Watkins said there are six, but added that none are active.

Grenier said when he joined the council in 1990, the department had nine members on call, seven of whom were active. He added that if something catastrophic happens in the city, the city has no backup and that would be a reason to join a mutual aid district.

Rozek said his main objective in suggesting a mutual aid district is that shared resources go further and other towns have much nicer equipment than Berlin’s due to the ability to receive additional grant funding. Rozek made a motion to approve Watkins’ suggestion to join the district, which was approved by the entire council.

Watkins said the annual cost of joining the district is $250.

In other matters:

• The council discussed the expansion of the urban compact for Route 110.

The council hosted a public forum on Sept. 29 to hear comments on the proposed expansion, which would take over about 2 miles of Route 110 that is currently under the jurisdiction of the state Department of Transportation.

Grenier said that he felt it was time for the council to “fish or cut bait” on the proposed extension.

Council member Mark Eastman said he thought that the Sept. 29 meeting went well and most complaints from residents were about the state of city roads. He added residents did say that they were not opposed to development along Route 110, but were concerned with the city’s ability to manage the roads. He then said he feels the current agreement with DOT addresses those issues.

Remillard said if the city wants growth and additional tax dollars, the city needs to support businesses along the corridor.

Council member Peter Higbee provided a spreadsheet to the council members of calculations he has done with respect to the city’s cost for the road over a 26-year period, saying the cost would average around $360,000 per year.

Grenier said the cost would probably be less under the agreement as the roadway would be put on the state’s 10-year reconstruction plan and so some costs would be covered by the state.

Grenier suggested that the city be creative in agreeing to the deal with DOT, suggesting a Feb. 1, 2022, effective date to allow the city to have one more winter where the DOT would be responsible for winter roadway maintenance. The agreement as drafted would commit the DOT to continue to maintain the road for five years from the effective date.

Remillard suggested having the effective date be before Nov. 1, which is when the state closes down the relevant section of road to ATV traffic. She said businesses were requesting the city take it over before that date so that ATVs could continue to use the road after Nov. 1 of this year.

Grenier told City Manager Jim Wheeler to prepare a resolution for the board’s next meeting.

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