Why I'm Voting Against Rebuilding the Park Circle Fire Station
Does anyone know how many fire stations we need?
Does anyone know where we should place the fire stations?
I'm voting against spending $2.5 million on the Park Circle fire station because I am not satisfied that we know the answer to these questions. We shouldn't spend such a large sum without properly researching what we need. (I wrote a brief history of the issue for those unfamiliar with the facts.)
When we look at how many fire stations we need, we have a very complex question with a number of variables. The list starts: response times, adjusted by traffic patterns; how many and what type of apparatus; number of firefighters per apparatus; minimum manning levels; the mix of fire and medical emergencies; the frequency that simultaneous calls come in, and how many stack up at one time. Despite the years of questions about the issue, the town hasn't produced any research to explain why the three fire stations should all be rebuilt in the exact same locations.
Our town leadership has not studied this question with the care and detail that is necessary to justify such a large price tag. The Finance Committee, among others, asked for supporting documenation. To date, it has only received a listing of the number of calls, medical and fire, divided by station area coverage. There has been no study of how response times would change with two fire stations. There has been no study of how response times could be improved if we placed the fire stations on other properties in the town. There has only been an overview of recent years' data.
We shouldn't choose to maintain our three fire stations just because we always have done it that way. Some of our current fire stations were sited when horses pulled the trucks. Smoking, one of the biggest causes of fires, has significantly declined. The fraction of calls that are medical, rather than fire, has grown. Smoke alarms and sprinkler systems have become more ubiquitous and advanced. The population of the town, its density, and its concentrated areas has changed. Virtually every variable has changed since we last built a fire station.
The amount that we rely on other towns, and they on us, has not been evaluated. We have not sufficiently explored the needs of mutual aid. We have not effectively considered regionalization, or partnerships with neighboring towns. Are there ways to increase coverage at a lower cost by combining resources with Belmont, Lexington, or Cambridge? We won't know until we ask.
Supporters of the override are making the argument that the town is efficient and well-run. "The override is necessary," the argument goes, "because there is no fat left in the budget." How can any voter find that argument believable when they look at the lack of research on the Park Circle fire station? How can a taxpayer believe their money is well-spent, when millions of their dollars are allocated to a fire station that no one can demonstrate that we need?
The current state of our fire stations is deplorable. While a lamentable situation, it provides us with a unique opportunity to look closely at our public safety needs. We should not squander this opportunity by simply doing what we always have done. We should be careful and considerate, then we should deliberate about our needs, and only then should we act. We should not build without knowing what we need.
Arguments That Don't Hold Water
During the previous debates about the fire station there have been some bad arguments made about why we should build Park Circle fire station. I'm going to debunk them before they can be made this year. When you hear similar points raised on the Town Meeting floor, please recognize them for what they are.
The 2002 Report Was Flawed
This statement may or may not be true, but it is irrelevant to the question before us. When we're talking about spending $2.5 million, the onus is to prove that we do need to spend the money. Rather than debating that report, proponents of the Park Circle rebuilding should be explaining why we need three fire stations. The 2002 report doesn't make any arguments in favor of three fire stations and shouldn't be used to justify building three firestations.
The Firefighters of Our Town Deserve Better Facilities Than They Have Now
Our firefighters do deserve better; There are few (if any) who would debate that fact. But that isn't a reason to rebuild the Park Circle station. It's a reason to have a fire station rebuilding program. It isn't a reason to have three fire stations, nor is it a reason to rebuild Park first while the town studies what it really needs.
Some will find it tempting to characterize opponents of the fire station as enemies of the town's firefighters. Please resist this characterization: it simply isn't true. Town Meeting members need to be responsible to the taxpayers as well as town employees. It is not rude or improper to debate the cost of the town's public services. It is the duty of town meeting members to do these things.
My Child/Parent/Friend Was Saved by a Visit From Park Circle
This is a very emotional point; it touches us where we care most, about our families. However, we can't afford to spend millions of dollars on the basis of a few anecdotes. When you listen to the story, think about the rest of the information that we don't have. Would the person have been equally, or better, served from another station? Does this story really represent the tens of thousands of calls the fire service receives every year? What would we learn if we looked at all of the data, not just the one story we're hearing?
We need to look beyond any single incident. We need to look at the big picture: thousands of calls, dozens of fire fighters, and some number of fire stations.
I hope the debate will be civil and substantive, and does not degenerate into personal attacks and flimsy emotional appeals. I think my comments on the discussion in 2003 explain what I consider to be quality debate.
A Brief History of the Park Circle Fire Station Debate
I welcome any corrections to this history. I pieced it together from public minutes, my personal notes, and memory. I linked to a few relevant documents on my website.
In 2001 the Capital Planning Committee, having heard the growing need for fire station improvements, asked for a study of the town's fire needs. Fire Chief Maimone, in consultation with the fire fighter's union and the Board of Selectmen, hired MMA Consulting Group to perform the study. When the report was issued in 2002 (5MB PDF), Chief Maimone rejected the major conclusions of the report. The Board of Selectmen held a public hearing on the issue and voted unanimously to support the rebuilding of all three fire stations. At the 2002 Town Meeting, the capital plan included funding for plans for rebuilding the Park Circle fire station. There was a closely contested amendment to remove the earmark from the funds, to make it possible to use them for any fire station. One of the arguments made by the proponents was that there was no time to wait because Park Circle was failing. The amendment lost, and the money for plans was approved. In 2003 the capital plan did not include Park Circle to the consternation of some. 2004 also passed without any money spent, but with some discussion at Town Meeting. In 2005 the Capital Planning Committee voted to recommend building the Park Circle station, but the Finance Committee took the money out of the recommended budget.