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Williamstown Fire District Seeks New Perspective from Advisory Panel
By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff
02:37AM / Thursday, October 01, 2020
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WILLLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Williamstown Fire District has had eight chiefs in 122 years of its existence.
 
It is governed by an elected committee that, until last year, had just three members, each with decades of experience in fighting fires, including one whose father served on the same committee.
 
And it is looking for a fresh perspective.
 
"We're set in our way and need to listen to fresh ideas," Assistant Chief Robert Briggs said last week. "That's what we're looking for. Myself, the chief, the other assistant chiefs and three members of the Prudential Committee have been here for 30 plus years.
 
"The fire industry is a tradition-based industry. Traditions are changing in today's world, and we need to adapt and adjust."
 
Briggs was addressing a committee that the Prudential Committee hopes will help provide some fresh perspectives to the district.
 
Jeffrey Thomas, who chaired the town's Economic Development Committee back in 2015 prior to being elected to the Select Board, was tapped to chair the district's Community Advisory Committee, which was formed by the Prudential Committee this summer.
 
Aside from Thomas, none of the other members of the advisory committee currently serves on a town board or committee, and just one, Susan Schneski, a former member of the Planning Board, cited experience in town government when Thomas asked the group to make self introductions.
 
Their experience in town ranges from the Williamstown-born Carin DeMayo-Wall to Christina Sanborn, the executive director for facilities operations at Williams College, who told the group she lived in town for just more than a year.
 
In short, it is a group designed to bring a new set of eyes to one of the town's older institutions.
 
And it is not meant to blindly follow the lead of the panel that created it, Thomas said.
 
"We're all aware the Fire District hopes to build a new station on the lot on Main Street next to Aubuchon Hardware," Thomas said. "I want to be really clear about one point. I have this on authority of [Prudential Committee Chair] John Notsley: There is no expectation this committee is going to 'rubber stamp' plans for a new fire station. I've had discussion with folks in the district, and we agree that if we the community saw our committee as a rubber stamp, it doesn't help the fire district.
 
"The Fire District and staff does expect us to ask hard questions and function independently of them and give them our honest opinions. It's OK if we disagree with some of their ideas. When we agree, we should say we do. And if we're uncertain about some of their plans, we should ask questions and get more information."
 
Much of last Wednesday's initial meeting was dedicated to getting information about the current operation of the district.
 
Briggs, Chief Craig Pedercini and district Treasurer Corydon Thurston spent much of the night explaining the district's structure and operations.
 
"The Williamstown Fire District for many years only encompassed the water district," Briggs said. "It had to be in the '90s, I believe that the Fire District was changed by legislation to encompass the entire town. The water district goes to Gale Road, Bee Hill Road, Pines Lodge Park going up Henderson Road. It didn't go past Longview Terrace at that end of town."
 
The town's firefighters still responded to fires outside the water district, but it could not collect taxes from that part of town.
 
"I think I was told that if they did come out and help you that you really should donate to the Fire Department, that you should pay them back for that wonderful service -- before it was that we were taxed," said Schneski, a longtime resident of Hancock road in South Williamstown, beyond the town water line. "I hope people did. I've never had a problem, thank goodness."
 
Pedercini explained that he is the only full-time employee of the district and most of the firefighters in the call-volunteer department receive only an hourly wage of a little more than $19 when they are called out on an emergency or when they are taking mandatory training classes.
 
Currently there are 22 volunteers in the department, including four Williams College students.
 
"All of our members are on call 24/7, year round," Pedercini said. "We do not get holidays off.
 
"Firefighting is not for everyone, but we welcome anyone who wants to talk to us. We're always looking for hard-working applicants."
 
One of the issues facing the Fire District is maintaining its staffing, especially during "business hours."
 
"We have currently three firefighters who are also officers who work at the college," he said. "We have another firefighter who works swing-shift hours at the hospital. During the day, that's pretty much what we see, five or six members responding to calls.
 
"If it's something that's going to require more manpower, like a structure fire, we do not hesitate to call the dispatcher and request mutual aid from whatever town we need it. If we're down at the Five Corners [in South Williamstown], it might be Hancock or New Ashford or Lanesborough, even. But they're in the same boat with their manpower. We'll get called in the same fashion for mutual aid in those towns."
 
Pedercini said when he joined the department, it had three dozen firefighters, and other towns could have up to 50 and had to put would-be volunteers on a list.
 
"It's been declining mostly because the mill districts we used to have around here [have declined]," Pedercini said. "A lot of those people were blue-collar workers, and one of the things they enjoyed doing was volunteering with the Fire Department. The community has changed, and we don't have as many of those people.
 
"But we have students. We hire teachers. We've got a doctor who is a Williams College alumnus. We don't like to say no to anybody."
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