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A death on the border, a call for towns to work together

HAMILTON -- Clark Wood died 50 yards from the town line.

When the 84-year-old retired policeman fell asleep with a lit cigarette, setting his easy chair ablaze, the nearest fire station was down the road, 3 minutes away.

But that station was in Wenham, and Wood's house was just across the border in Hamilton. Although the same dispatchers handle calls to 911 for both towns, it was a Hamilton fire, so Hamilton firefighters got the first call. Their station was 5 minutes away.

The Hamilton firefighters arrived 8 minutes later and fought through flames to carry out Wood, unconscious. He died a month later from his burns.

''That fire was rocking, and the men broke their backsides to save him," said Kenneth ''Kirby" Brand, Hamilton's deputy fire chief. ''We can't say for sure whether those 2 minutes would have made a difference or not."

When you dial 911, you do not necessarily get the nearest fire engine. You get a fire engine from the nearest fire station in your community. That is how it works in most towns in Massachusetts, as in most of the nation, a vestige of the colonial New England roots of America's fire service. Each town typically takes care of its own.

Although popular histories give him the credit, Ben Franklin's Philadelphia did not invent organized firefighting in America -- Boston did. But the old Boston Mutual Fire Societies put out fires only for their paid members. Franklin's innovation was that the firefighters would put out any fire, no matter whose property was burning.

Nearly four centuries later, some elements of firefighting have not changed. A death like Clark Wood's does not happen every day, but not for lack of opportunity: Nearly once a day in Massachusetts, a fire department puts out a building fire by itself although a neighboring town has a closer fire station, the Globe determined, using computer maps showing fire locations over the past decade.

Fire service is not constrained just by loss of staff and closings of fire stations. Some of the problems are rooted in lack of coordination among communities and turf wars between unions and management. Opposition from the firefighters union has held up a plan to speed response time in the Boston suburbs through a regional dispatch center, which would send the nearest fire engine. Across the United States, relatively few fire chiefs have studied response times.

''There's plenty of blame to go around," said Roy E. Jones III, chief of the Brewster Fire Department on Cape Cod. ''Most fire chiefs know what needs to be done, but for various reasons are unable to move forward."

Balkanization is a particular problem in Massachusetts, where county government plays a limited role. The state has 351 cities and towns, but at least 365 fire departments. (Shelburne, population 2,000, has two fire departments. Dartmouth has three. Barnstable has five.) Few fire departments have told the public how quickly they respond to fires.

''You start to talk about response times -- bam! City managers go crazy, unions get involved, it affects the cost of fire departments, " said Vincent Dunn, a former deputy in the New York Fire Department. ''No one wants to talk about it."

Jones, the Brewster fire chief, is ready to start talking about it.

Towns resist helping their neighbors, he said, because they worry about the costs. Towns resist receiving help, for fear that it will encourage the town's leaders to trim fire staffing. And sometimes the barrier is pride: ''This is my town," Jones said, giving voice to the objection. ''I don't want you here, especially if you might put out the fire before I do."

Cooperation is strong among the closer communities around Boston. A system of mutual aid called Metrofire ties together 34 communities, though still there are times when Boston, for example, handles a fire alone when a Brookline station is closer. Many towns also have what is called a line box, an agreement that an area on the border will get aid from both towns. This is a form of what is called ''automatic response," with both towns dispatching simultaneously. But it is not unusual in the outlying suburbs for a line box to protect only a single high-risk building, such as a school or hospital, not the surrounding homes.

Some towns have talked for years about regional solutions. A decade ago selectmen in five South Shore towns -- Cohasset, Hingham, Hull, Norwell, and Scituate -- approved a plan to combine their fire departments. The idea was shelved after the state firefighters union protested its exclusion from the talks.

''The union is not opposed to regionalization, if it is done correctly," said Robert B. McCarthy, president of the Professional Fire Fighters of Massachusetts. The chiefs said they favored the plan, but McCarthy gives them the blame. ''The fire chiefs don't want to lose their jobs."

Hamilton and Wenham, bedroom communities north of Boston, have studied combining fire and police. They already have combined schools and the library. Their separate volunteer fire departments cooperate to a degree; Wenham did arrive later at the Wood fire in April 2000.

A joint department could cost more, not less, if it pushed the towns toward hiring full-time firefighters.

One way to save money and shave seconds off response times would be to combine dispatch operations. Metrofire has proposed combining fire and EMS dispatch for its 34 communities into five regional centers. And Norfolk County has proposed a regional dispatch for towns that choose to participate.

''If we save a minute, it's like moving the fire station closer to your house," said John E. Dacey, the county administrator.

Bigger communities, such as Needham and Quincy, said they do not need or want to join, but several smaller towns have expressed interest: Walpole, Westwood, Canton, and Sharon. Legislative approval has been delayed because of union concerns. ''They didn't bring us to the table until after it was filed," said McCarthy, the union president, who said he remains open to discussing the idea, so long as any dispatched jobs lost are moved into the fire department where they are needed.

BILL DEDMAN

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