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Report of the Fire Department - 2020

I am pleased to present the Annual Report of the Wakefield Fire Department for calendar year 2020. The department had a very busy year dealing with both emergencies and the construction boom taking place around town. The department responded to 3,733 emergency calls during 2020, a decrease of just over 7% from the previous year.

The defining event for the department in 2020 was the Coronavirus or Covid-19 Pandemic. The Pandemic made an enormous impact on the department on both a financial and personal level. Department members started to respond to Covid-19 emergency calls in late February. Firefighters were dealing with an unknown extremely contagious virus equipped with very limited quantities of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). The department developed virtually overnight a series of procedures to handle responses involving Covid-19. Firefighters suddenly found themselves wearing N95 masks, medical gowns, hoods, gloves and goggles to help protect themselves from contracting the virus. It was not an unusual site during March to see a firefighter donning a full-body protective suit during responses involving Covid-19 positive patients. PPE supplies were in critically short supply as citizens donated and even made PPE supplies for the department. The staffing level for the department was increased by one firefighter per shift to provide sufficient staffing at medical calls involving Covid-19 patients. These emergency calls require more support to ensure that PPE is properly installed and removed during these incidents to minimize exposure to department members. A total of four department members contracted Covid-19 during 2020 and have since fully recovered. The department eventually received significant supplies of PPE through a combination of donations, vendor purchases and federal aid as new Covid-19 cases started to decrease during the spring and summer. This influx of PPE proved to be vital in November as a second surge of the virus occurred throughout the area extending well into the new year. Department members assisted in several town-sponsored activities involving the distribution of face masks, including a drive-up event held at the Galvin Middle School on April 20 and a town-wide door-to-door distribution that took place from May 4-6. Department members will also be assisting citizens in the upcoming Covid-19 vaccination clinics in 2021.

The department experienced a significant decrease in non-Covid-19 emergency medical responses during March, April and May as the public became reluctant to go the hospital for fear of contracting the virus. This is the most likely cause of the 7% decrease in emergency responses the department made in 2020. Federal and state resources continue to play a vital role in defraying some of the financial costs of the virus to the department. There is no question that the pandemic will continue to financially effect the department in 2021.

The Wakefield Fire Department continued to receive significant financial aid in the form of grants from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security during 2020. The department secured a Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant in the amount of $1.1 million to fully fund the salary and benefits for four additional full-time firefighters for the Town of Wakefield for a period of three years. This SAFER grant is in addition to a 2018 SAFER grant already awarded to the town to staff one full-time firefighter for salary and benefits at a 75% level for two years and a 35% level for the third year (2022) for a total of $195,229. A third federal grant in the form of a Covid-19 Assistance to Firefighters Grant (AFG) in the amount of $4,300 will reimburse the department for some of the costs it incurred for medical equipment and supplies related to the Covid-19 Pandemic. An additional AFG grant for $10,910 will fund 90% of the training costs for an instructor led program regarding the use of Firefighter Personal Escape Systems (bail-out kits) that would permit them to quickly exit a burning building via an exterior window. These grants are in addition to any federal and state assistance that is pending to provide reimbursement for personnel and PPE supply costs related to the Covid-19 Pandemic that is being coordinated through the Department of Emergency Management. Funding from federal and state agencies continues to be vital in providing resources that the department needs to carry out its public-safety mission. State funding also pays for the training and response costs associated with the department’s participation in the regional hazardous materials and technical rescue response teams.

Emergency Incident Response

During 2020 the Wakefield Fire Department responded to 3,733 emergency incidents, including 3,317 Still Alarms and 416 Box Alarms. Wakefield had no civilian fire deaths in 2020. The department had three incidents in 2020 requiring a multiple-alarm response.

Firefighters aboard Ladder 1 under the command of Lieutenant Erik Cole, responded to a report of wires burning in the street in the vicinity of 88 Elm Street just after 5 P.M. on August 23, during the height of a severe storm moving through the area. Upon their arrival, firefighters were alerted to a fire that had started in the basement of 88 Elm Street. Lieutenant Cole immediately struck a second alarm as all available apparatus was tied up responding to the numerous calls resulting from the storm. Eventually Engines 1 and 5, a North Reading ladder truck and a Reading engine company arrived at the scene. Firefighters could not enter the residence until personnel from the Wakefield Municipal Gas and Light Department (WMGLD) were able to cut power to the high-voltage lines burning into the street in front of the residence. Firefighters made their way through the dense smoke inside the home to the basement where the main body of fire was located and extinguished. The fire was contained primarily to the front left corner of the basement and the first and second floor areas immediately above it. The cause of the fire was determined to be electrical after the water service to the residence became electrically charged by the nearby downed power lines. Two residents of the home were displaced as a result of this fire. There were no injuries to either residents or firefighters as a result of this incident.

Wakefield’s second-multiple alarm fire occurred at 1 New Salem Street during the early morning hours of October 2. Firefighters, led by Captain John Walsh, responded to a report of a structure fire at McClellan Concrete at 2:45 A.M., finding the large front section of a truck service facility fully involved in flames. A second alarm was struck bringing companies from Reading, Stoneham, Melrose and North Reading to the scene. Firefighters were hampered in their attempts to extinguish the fire in this building due to poor access caused by its limited number of doors and windows. The building was constructed of corrugated steel making rapid ventilation of the building a challenge. The building contained hazardous materials incidental to the business such as propane, torches, tires and considerable quantities of oil and assorted lubricants. Water supply in the immediate area was limited and an additional third, fourth and fifth alarms were struck to bring enough fire apparatus to the scene to bring it under control by5 A.M. The communities of Lynn, Lynnfield, Malden, Melrose, North Reading, Reading, Saugus, Stoneham, Winchester and Woburn sent apparatus to the fire while Burlington, Revere, and Peabody covered the town. A team of local and state fire and police investigators conducted an extensive investigation of the fire scene but could not determine the exact cause of the fire. The entire front section of the building along with its contents were completely destroyed with heavy smoke, heat and water damage to the remainder of the structure. Two firefighters were injured during the fire, which is expected to exceed $1million in property loss. The concrete company was able to resume operations after a few days.

The third and final multiple-alarm fire of 2020 occurred at 8 P.M. on December 18 when firefighters, under the direction of Captain Randy Hudson, responded to a reported building fire at 12 Chestnut Street. Upon their arrival, firefighters found a fire inside a third-floor kitchen area of the eight-unit apartment building. The visible fire was quickly knocked down as thick smoke encompassed the third floor, resulting in zero visibility. Captain Hudson ordered a second alarm, bringing Reading, Stoneham, Melrose and North Reading companies to the scene for additional support. The third floor was quickly vented revealing no further fire extension. Damage to the building’s structure and utilities as well as heavy smoke and water damage on the lower floors displaced all eight building occupants. Wakefield Emergency Manager Thomas Walsh and the American Red Cross assisted them in finding immediate shelter at the Four Points Sheraton Hotel. The cause of the fire was determined to be accidental, most likely due to unattended cooking inside the third-floor unit’s kitchen. Wakefield Police Sergeant John Burnham was credited with saving the occupant of the unit where the fire started, forcing the front entrance to the apartment open and leading the sleeping man to safety. That occupant was treated and released from an area hospital. There were no other injuries as a result of this fire.

There were several additional events occurring in 2020 that were noteworthy

Firefighters under Captain Brian Purcell responded to a work-related accident involving several employees of a painting contractor at 17 Richardson Avenue that occurred around mid-day on April 15. They suffered significant injuries when the scaffolding they were operating on collapsed off the exterior of the building, dropping them 15 feet to the ground. The workers were treated initially at the scene and then transported to area hospitals. The Building Inspector as well as personnel from OSHA were notified and performed a follow-up investigation into the cause of this accident.

Wakefield was struck by what was later determined to be a microburst during the afternoon of August 23 as a weather front moved through the area. The department was immediately inundated with emergency calls involving fallen trees, downed utility poles, fallen power lines and damaged homes. The department responded to approximately 65 emergency calls during the first hour after the storm, the most serious being a 2-alarm house fire at 88 Elm Street already noted. Approximately 130 large trees fell across the town, blocking streets and bringing down power lines. Several dozen homes were struck by large trees, causing significant damage to them and in several cases, displacing occupants until repairs could be made. Many streets including Houston Street, Grafton Street and several sections of Main Street in Greenwood were completely blocked by fallen trees and utility poles. The Wakefield Fire and Police Departments worked closely with members of the Wakefield Department of Public Works and WMGLD to safeguard the public while streets were cleared as soon as possible. Remarkably, there were no serious injuries reported as a result of the microburst. I’m extremely proud of the efforts of the Wakefield Fire Department during this storm and grateful for the expertise and cooperation of the other town departments credited above.

Firefighters under the command of Captain Paul Pronco responded to a report of a ruptured underground natural gas main on Montrose Avenue near Whittier Road during the morning of August 31. They arrived to find that National Grid workers had accidentally struck the main causing natural gas to leak from a high-pressure pipeline. Several large hose lines were deployed to direct the leaking gas fumes away from ignition sources and out into the wetlands adjacent to Montrose Avenue. Occupants were evacuated from six nearby residences while members from the WMGLD worked diligently to shut down the flow of natural gas. This was accomplished in about 45 minutes and all residents were allowed to return to their homes.

Crews under the direction of Captain Paul Pronco responded to the West Rock Company at 365 Audubon Road during the evening of September 10 to assist a worker who had injured his hand in an industrial roller. The worker had been freed by co-workers prior to the department’s arrival. He was treated at the scene and transported by Cataldo Ambulance paramedics to Massachusetts General Hospital for follow-up care.

A crew from Engine 1, lead by Lieutenant Daniel Hancock, responded to 14 Audubon Road during the early morning of September 22 to assist Wakefield Police and Cataldo Ambulance with the treatment of a young woman with a gunshot wound to the neck area. The woman was treated at the scene and transported to the Lahey Clinic in Burlington for follow-up care.

The Wakefield Fire Department responded to 60 requests for mutual aid during 2020.

Mutual aid responses included fires in Lynnfield, Melrose, North Reading, Reading, Saugus, Stoneham and Woburn. Lieutenant Cliff Silva and a crew from Engine 1 assisted the Reading Fire Department at the scene of a 4-alarm fire at 1 High Street during the early morning of February 24. The fire occurred in a 12-unit apartment building, trapping two occupants in the unit where the fire started. Lieutenant Silva’s crew assisted Reading Firefighters in removing these victims from the building and performing CPR on one of them. Sadly, one of the fire victims died from their injuries and the other was critically injured. A crew from Engine 1, led by Lieutenant Phil Preston, assisted the Reading Fire Department at the scene of a 3-alarm fire in a golf club located at 292 Grove Street during the early morning of April 21.

Lieutenant Michael Long is a member of the Massachusetts District 2 Hazardous Materials Response Team. He was not called out for any responses during 2020. This regional hazardous materials response team is funded by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, which pays for all the associated training and incident response costs to support the team’s activities.

Captain Paul Pronco and Firefighter Steven Bivens continue to be members of the Northeast Massachusetts Technical Rescue Team. Firefighter Bivens responded to one incident during 2020 involving the rescue of a worker caught in a trench collapse in the City of Peabody during the afternoon of October 17. The team actively trains and prepares for incidents that may require a technical rescue such as building and trench collapses as well as rope and rapid-water rescues. The Northeast Technical Rescue Team is partially subsidized by funding provided by The Northeast Homeland Security Regional Advisory Council, which reimburses the department for a portion of the training and incident response expenses associated with this team.

Personnel

As of December 31, 2020, the Wakefield Fire Department consisted of 52 personnel: The Fire Chief, a Deputy Fire Chief, five Captains, including a Captain assigned as a Fire Prevention Officer, 12 Lieutenants, 32 Firefighters, and one civilian Administrative Assistant. The Wakefield Fire Department applied for and received a 2019 SAFER staffing grant fully funding the salary and benefits of four new firefighters for the department. These four additions will increase the department’s roster to 56 members including the Administrative Assistant. These four new SAFER positions will be filled as soon as possible so they can be enrolled in the Massachusetts Firefighting Academy Recruit Training Program.

The year 2020 brought several personnel changes to the Wakefield Fire Department. There were no retirements during the calendar year 2020. Two new Wakefield Firefighters, Michael Marroquin and Michael Scheri were appointed permanent Firefighters on January 2, 2020. They were subsequently enrolled in a ten-week training program with the Massachusetts Firefighting Academy (MFA) Recruit Class 281 on January 13, 2020, graduating as fully trained recruits on March 20.

Captain Thomas Purcell was promoted to the new rank of Deputy Fire Chief on June 22. Lieutenant David Shinney and Firefighter Gary Hill were promoted to Fire Captain and Fire Lieutenant, respectively, on July 6 to fill the vacancies created by the creation of the Deputy Chief’s Position.

Apparatus and Equipment

The department did not replace any major fire apparatus during 2020. Annual Town Meeting in May of 2019 authorized $700,000 for the purchase of a new 1250-gallon-per-minute pumper for the department. The specifications for the new pumper were completed and the bid was awarded to Seagrave Fire Apparatus of Clintonville, Wisconsin, with an expected delivery date near the end of 2020. Unfortunately, the Covid-19 Pandemic resulted in plant closures and significant production delays. The anticipated completion date is now May of 2021.

The department implemented a new fire incident reporting system on January 30. The system, developed by Emergency Reporting, allows the department to generate their incident reports in a manner that is compliant with the National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS) as well as the Massachusetts Fire Incident Reporting System (MFIRS). This software will allow the department to report all its emergency incidents electronically to both the federal and state governments.

The department received a Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security for $1.1 million to fully fund the salary and benefits of four new firefighter positions for the next three years. This is in addition to a second SAFER grant awarded in 2019 that is in its second year. That grant will fund 75% of the cost of one Firefighter for 2020 and 35% of the cost of the position for 2021. An Assistance to Firefighters Grant (AFG) was also awarded to the department in the amount of $10,910 for training and another AFG grant was awarded in 2020 for $4,300 to reimburse the department for supplies expended to combat the Covid-19 Pandemic.

A capital budget expenditure of $125,000 was authorized to replace the department’s compliment of 52 portable radios, which are worn out and out dated. This expenditure was reduced to $62,000 due to financial concerns brought on by the Covid-19 Pandemic. The Department has requested the remaining funding of $62,500 for the 26 portable radios that weren’t purchased as part of the Fiscal Year 2021 Capital Budget Requests as well as an additional $57,500 in upgrades to the fire alarm notification and communications equipment at Wakefield Fire Headquarters.

All the department’s pumper engines, fire hose, ground ladders, air compressor and breathing apparatus were inspected, tested and certified during 2020. The aerial ladder for Ladder 1 was also inspected and certified. All breathing apparatus face pieces were also fit-tested during the year to ensure their proper operation.

Training

The department’s participation in training programs this year, including programs offered by the Massachusetts Firefighting Academy and outside vendors, was severely curtailed this year due to the Covid-19 Pandemic. Social distancing requirements prohibited most of the instructor-led classroom presentations. Department members participated in many on-line training programs, especially those related to the continuing education requirements of their Emergency Medical Technician certificates. The department conducted additional training activities on the following topics as weather and Covid-19 precautions permitted:

Captain Paul Pronco and Firefighter Steven Bivens continue to be active members of the Northeast Massachusetts Technical Rescue Team, and Lieutenant Michael Long continues to be an active member of the District 2 Hazardous Materials Response Team.

Fire Prevention

The Department conducted a limited number of in-service inspections of all commercial and industrial properties in town during 2020 due to the fact that many businesses were closed because of the Covid-19 Pandemic. As a result, 373 business fire inspections were conducted in the community between July and December of 2020 by on-duty firefighters operating on a ready-to-respond basis. These in-service inspections also help familiarize department members with the floor plans and hazards associated within these buildings prior to an emergency situation. An additional 30 quarterly inspections of school buildings, nursing homes, hotels and boarding homes were also conducted by on-duty firefighters. The number of quarterly inspections was also down significantly due to the Covid-19 Pandemic.

Captains John Walsh and David Shinney, the department’s Fire Prevention Officers who split the duties of the position during the calendar year 2020, conducted 102 inspections related to local and state licensing of restaurants, liquor stores, assembly halls, group homes, day care centers and after-school programs. They completed 124 compliance inspections during 2020 to ensure that any potential violations or hazards previously discovered were corrected. The compliance checks also allow emergency business contacts for these properties to be updated, resulting in faster notification of property owners during an emergency.

The year 2020 continued to reflect a significant construction boom in Wakefield. Many buildings were demolished in preparation for new construction including locations on Main Street, North Avenue and Water Street. Single-family homes in many locations around town were torn down to make room for new structures. The Fire Prevention Bureau closely monitored and completed final inspections for an 18-unit apartment building located at 598 North Avenue, an 8-unit condominium building at 642 Main Street, a commercial building at 37 Water Street and a newly renovated tower section for the Four Points Sheraton Hotel. New fire alarm systems for 27 Water Street and 4 Columbia Road were also inspected. Construction is presently well under way on an 81-unit apartment building at 69 Foundry Street and a 184-unit apartment building at 168 Albion Street. The properties at 301 North Avenue and 27 Water Street are being renovated and converted over to a mixed-use commercial/residential occupancy. The department conducted approximately 117 on-site inspections of construction sites during 2020.

The coming year promises to be another busy year for the Fire Prevention Bureau as more construction projects have been proposed. Plans are working their way through the approval process for large apartment buildings on Foundry Street, North Avenue, Salem Street, Tarrant Lane and Water Street. The Fire Prevention Bureau will closely monitor these developments during calendar year 2021. The department conducted reviews for approximately 175 sets of plans during 2020 including dozens of residential additions, new homes and commercial tenant fit-ups in many locations around Wakefield.

Fire Prevention Officer Captain David Shinney, as well as Deputy Fire Chief Thomas Purcell, fill a vital role in the Wakefield Fire Department. The department can’t function properly without these two administrative positions. The Deputy Fire Chief also serves as the department’s executive officer, assuming command of the department in the absence of the Fire Chief. The Deputy coordinates training, develops new policies and procedures and helps to prepare the operating budget. The Deputy also coordinates the maintenance of the department’s fire stations, equipment and vehicles.

The department was not able to conduct any fire station tours or participate in any classroom visits or guest reader days this year due to the Covid-19 Pandemic. Fire drills were conducted at each school facility whenever possible. Multi-hazard evacuation drills were postponed until the spring of 2021 out of concerns that social distancing could not be maintained.

Conclusion

I am grateful to the community and especially the Town Council, Finance Committee and Town Administrator Stephen P. Maio for their ongoing support during the year. As Wakefield enters 2021, my goals are to closely monitor the town’s ongoing major construction projects, provide quality training programs for department members and monitor the construction and outfitting of the new fire department pumper authorized by Town Meeting. I would like to thank all the members of the Wakefield Fire Department, the Wakefield Police Department, all other town boards, committees and departments and the citizens of Wakefield for their continued support and assistance.

Respectfully submitted,

Chief Michael J. Sullivan
Wakefield Fire Department

Further reading:

Reports from previous years:

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