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The Boston Globe: “House fire raises new questions on department’s cuts”

Wearing jeans, sneakers, and a sweatshirt after his pager awakened him at 2 a.m. on a recent Sunday, off-duty Shirley Fire Captain Joe Hawthorne rushed to a burning house where three children told him their mother was inside.

“The whole room was on fire,” said Hawthorne, who crawled along the floor through the smoke-filled home so he could breathe. “It just seemed like forever. I could hear her yelling, but I couldn’t locate her at first.”

When Hawthorne found Patricia LeBlanc, 46, she was conscious but had burns over 70 percent of her body.

She was the third person to be injured in a fire in Shirley since the town began laying off firefighters late last year; the lower staffing level led to the fire station being closed on weekends and open for reduced hours during the week.

LeBlanc, who was recently widowed, remained in critical condition last week at Massachusetts General Hospital following the Dec. 6 blaze, said her brother, Fred Healy. He is taking care of her children, ages 6, 8, and 11.

Her Phoenix Street home sits less than a mile from the fire station, which was closed when the alarm went out. By the time Hawthorne dragged LeBlanc outside and started throwing snow on her, neither an ambulance nor a firetruck had arrived.

When the station isn’t open, the town relies on its on-call firefighters and mutual aid from neighboring departments, but the arrangement slows response time, said Fire Chief Dennis Levesque. It took 11 minutes for a firetruck to arrive at LeBlanc’s home. Had the station been open, it would have been there in less than 90 seconds, the chief said.

“You wouldn’t have had a fireman go in there with no gear. He is lucky he didn’t get killed,” said Selectman Enrico Cappucci. “The lack of firemen is critical. This is the second fire in which we had a near fatality.”

Two people were seriously hurt in a house fire in March; neighbors who pulled them from their burning apartment said that it took at least 20 minutes before an ambulance arrived. During the wait, 57-year-old Patricia Potter was screaming in pain as neighbors threw snow on her. Her clothing, hair, and eyelids were burned, they said.

The town has been struggling financially for the last two years, after residents turned down several requested property-tax increases and state aid was reduced. This year, the town is also losing $170,389 that it had received annually to defray the costs of hosting a state prison.

To balance the town’s budget, Shirley laid off the public works director, did not replace the police chief when he retired, froze town employees’ wages for two years, switched to a four-day work week, and cut the number of school buses from eight to four.

The Police Department and the Department of Public Works lost employees, but the Fire Department took the biggest hit, with its budget cut in half from approximately $400,000 to $200,000 in November 2008, and three of the town’s six firefighters laid off, Levesque said.

At that time, ambulance director Dwight Detillion warned residents that the response time for medical emergencies would double, since Shirley’s firefighters also serve as the town’s EMTs. Another firefighter was laid off following the March blaze.

Cappucci had suggested that police officers be trained to respond to a fire, since their department is staffed at night, but the fire chief and the unions rejected his idea, he said.

Police Sergeant Peter Violette, who was working on Dec. 6 and went into LeBlanc’s burning home with Hawthorne and another officer, said some fire training for his colleagues would be a good idea.

“It was surreal,” he said about the rescue. “That’s the last thing you think about is to go into a building like that.” He said he isn’t sure whether he would do it again.

Rather than hiring more full-time firefighters, Levesque said, he might encourage volunteers to work at night, or might pay a stipend to part-time firefighters. “We’re going to see if we can get creative, and get some solution to do some staffing without having to pay benefits,” the fire chief said.

But, he said, he does not expect to get the money to restore the department’s schedule to 24 hours, despite the injuries suffered by LeBlanc in the recent fire: “I’m not going to use this situation to go crying to the taxpayers.”

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