For decades, city leaders have talked about the need for better fire coverage in rural areas such as Ayers Village and Rocks Village.
These sections of the city have been steadily growing, and talks have focused on opening fire stations in those areas so help can get to the scenes of fires and other emergencies more quickly.
That's what firefighter union president Timothy Carroll told the City Council at a recent meeting when asking the city to hire more firefighters.
Mayor James Fiorentini said Carroll's plan would cost millions of dollars to implement, likely requiring a tax override.
Carroll told the council that since 2004, firefighter staffing has been slowly declining.
"We used to have a 20-man minimum (per shift) and now we have a 19 man minimum since 2005, when the mayor cut manning to 19," Carroll said, noting the city now has one firefighter for every 700 residents.
Carroll said that among communities with populations of similar size, Haverhill has the fewest number of firefighters in the state. Haverhill has about 65,000 residents.
Carroll said the union wants to add firefighters each year until the department is up to 25 per shift, with a fifth engine company and a second ladder truck serving the city. He said the plan would include converting the Rocks Village call station to a full-time station, once there are enough firefighters to staff it.
Carroll said adding four firefighters each year for six years would bring the department from its current 95 total firefighters to 120, resulting in a per-shift total of 25 firefighters, compared to today’s 19 per shift.
He said the proposal does not include plans to renovate the tiny Ayers Village station. None of the department's new fire trucks fit in that building, he said. The Ayers Village area has experienced a housing boom in recent years, and city officials have occasionally talked about building a fire station there.
“Ultimately, an ideal location for a new station (near the Ayers Village section of the city) would be in the area of the Broadway Business Park,” Carroll said.
Carroll said additional firefighters would allow the Bradford fire station to staff Ladder 4, which is housed there only as backup truck in the event Ladder 1, housed at the Water Street station, is unavailable.
“We would need to create more living space at the Bradford station if we had enough people for Ladder 4, and if we did, it would improve our response time to that area of the city,” he said.
Carroll said firefighters' response time to Haverhill's rural areas is too long.
He said the department is supposed to make 90 percent of its calls within four minutes, but it takes longer to reach outlying areas of the city, which covers 35 square miles.
A boom in the construction of high-rise buildings in the city continues, Carroll noted. He said the Fire Department must grow to protect those tall buildings.
"We're supposed to have a minimum of 42 people at a high-rise fire, but we have 19 on shift," he said. "We don't meet any standard for an initial high-rise attack."
Fire Chief William Laliberty said Haverhill's firefighters are hardworking, professional and dedicated.
"They always answer the bell, serve our community at all times of the day and in all weather conditions without hesitation," he said. "They deserve to be well-equipped with the best equipment possible that we can afford."
Laliberty said, however, that more firefighters, fire engines and ladder trucks would require new and upgraded fire stations to create more living space and properly house trucks.
"It’s an expensive plan and a plan we cannot afford, at least at this time," Laliberty said of Carroll's proposal, noting that a master plan committee is looking at the city's plans for future growth in the area of fire coverage.
"I’ve asked them to look at the current locations of and the number of fire stations we might possibly need in the future," Laliberty said. "These issues are quality-of-life decisions for everyone and what the city can afford to make."
He said help is on the way, as the city is working toward hiring four civilians as fire dispatchers. That will allow four firefighters currently serving as dispatchers to be transferred to fire trucks, one in each group, he said.
Fiorentini said the city does not have minimum manning requirements for how many firefighters it is required to have per shift.
"We are convinced that the city is safe and that our citizens are safe, but we will continue to look at this," the mayor said. "The downtown units (high-rise buildings) mentioned by the head of the fire union were signed off, as all of our projects are, by the fire chief."
The mayor said hiring 15 more firefighters would cost $10 million over a 10-year period, not including the increased cost of health care or overtime.
"This also does not include the cost of additional firefighters and does not include the cost of additional equipment," Fiorentini said. "This would almost certainly require an override, which would compete with our request to add more for schools.
"We are aware that every union and every department would like to have more money, more services, and more manpower," he said. "All of this has to be balanced against an assessment of what the real needs are and against our ability to pay."
City Councilor Michael McGonagle, chairman of the council's Public Safety Committee, said the council is concerned about the safety of firefighters and the public they serve.
"We'll send this to public safety to start the process," McGonagle said about the union's plan. "We've always been an advocate for more equipment and more staffing.
"The mayor is the one who can do this," McGonagle said. "We will have to try to convince him."