HOLYOKE, Mass. (WWLP) – A debate is heating up in Holyoke over whether the fire department can adequately protect city residents.
The Holyoke firefighters union is at odds with the mayor and the fire chief but residents told 22News, they have full confidence in the department.
Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse told 22News, “We don’t work for the union, we work for the taxpayers, and we have to live within our means.”
“He has no safety concerns for the men and women of this department,” Lt. Chad Cunningham of the Holyoke Fire Department said.
It is an ongoing battle between the Holyoke Firefighters Association, the fire chief and the mayor. On Monday, Unionized Holyoke firefighters overwhelmingly voted that they have “no confidence” in the leadership of Fire Chief John Pond and Mayor Alex Morse.
“Reduction in the fire department, initially with brownouts due to budget cuts, and now he has intentions to permanently close Engine 2 with no guarantee of keeping the staffing levels to the plans of where they’re at,” Cunningham said.
Mayor Morse, however, said that the city is putting money and manpower into the fire department.
“We’re hiring 10 new firefighters, they’ve got wage increases, percentage increases, in their union contracts; we’ve never had to go to arbitration for that,” Morse said. “We’ve spent $1.5 million on three new fire trucks.”
Cunningham argues that the massive New Year’s Day fire that killed three people and left 50 people homeless could have had a different result.
Mayor Morse told 22News that Holyoke residents should feel safe, and one woman we spoke with agreed.
“Yes, I do feel confident in the mayor and the fire department, as well as the police department,” Saram Cruz of Holyoke said.
Holyoke Fire Chief John Pond was unavailable for comment Wednesday night.
The Holyoke Firefighter’s Association outlined their concerns in the following statement:
On Monday evening, May 15th, the Holyoke Fire Fighters Local 1693 had a vote of no confidence in Fire Chief John Pond and Mayor Alex Morse. This vote came after discussing Chief Pond’s plan to permanently close Fire Engine 2, a plan supported by Mayor Morse, with the members, our legal counsel, and Professional Fire Fighters of Massachusetts President Rich MacKinnon, Secretary-Treasurer William Cabral, and District Vice-President Art Williamson. A motion was brought from the body for a vote of no confidence in the fire chief and mayor. The motion was seconded, there was discussion, and the vote passed by an overwhelming majority.
The members of the Union feel strongly that Chief Pond is not operating or managing the fire department in a manner that contributes to the safest possible and most effective department for both the firefighters and the citizens of Holyoke. Mayor Morse has consistently expressed full support for the chief’s decisions, despite the numerous examples conveyed to the mayor by the Union of the chief’s ineffective and irresponsible running of the Department.
Fire Chief Pond has a plan to close Engine 2 and reassign members to other apparatus. This is perhaps the most extreme example of Chief Pond’s continued reductions to the Department and practice of operating the Department at unsafe levels, all with the support of Mayor Morse. This further, permanent reduction of the structure of the fire department endangers citizens and puts the members of the fire department at a greater risk.
Fire Chief Pond’s decision to close Engine 2 shows a callous disregard for the safety of the citizens of Holyoke and the firefighters dedicated to protecting them. The devastating effects of closing Engine 2 were shown during the deadly New Year’s Day fire, where Engine 2 would have responded to the First Alarm and provided necessary support to the six firefighters on the scene. Following the fire, the City Council recognized the serious consequences associated with an understaffed fire department and asked the chief how much it would cost to stop the Brown Outs (temporary closing of Engine 2). Chief Pond told the City Council and the Council suggested to the chief that if he put in a request for the amount needed, the Council would vote to fund the request. The chief ignored the Council’s strong stance in favor of public safety and instead refused to place the request and continued to Brown Out Engine 2. Such action by Chief Pond is simply unacceptable and shows a clear lack of leadership and support for the members of the Holyoke Fire Department.
Fire Chief John Pond’s history of department reduction includes:
- Implementation of Brown Outs with no adjustments to tactics or strategies;
- Reduction of responding apparatus to emergency calls;
- Claims of adequate response to the New Year’s Day fire when crews and civilians were in a burning building with no water and no crew to supply them with water;
- Unwarranted, permanent closing of Fire Engine 2 which serves South Holyoke and is second on scene for the Flats and much of the Elmwood area;
- No guarantee that his new staffing plan will be fully staffed as written daily.
Moreover, the new plan, if adhered to, will be a larger financial burden to the city. The plan does not strengthen the web of coverage but expands the area of coverage for each fire engine by reducing the number of fire engines available. Meaning one fire engine will have to cover more territory increasing the chance for a delayed response during simultaneous emergencies. Chief Pond has provided no factual data to support his reallocation of resources plan. No studies have been conducted by the city to determine the effectiveness of the changes being implemented. Furthermore, changes are being made prior to Chief Pond knowing what the fire department budget will be.
Since the addition of 10 firefighters, Brown Outs have been reduced from occurring 75% of the time to less than 60%. As we have said all along, properly staffing the Department will reduce the need for Brown Outs to almost zero without the use of overtime and to zero with a minimum amount of overtime.
Based on the aforementioned decisions by Chief Pond and the support for those decisions by Mayor Morse, Local 1693 overwhelmingly supported a vote of no confidence in both Chief Pond and Mayor Morse.