CHESTER – At a recent selectmen’s meeting, resident Colin Costine questioned during public comment why the Chester Fire Association was looking at purchasing an ambulance.
The selectmen responded that they had no information on that matter, and Costine went on to surmise that should the department buy a vehicle, the cost to the taxpayer would surface eventually.
While the conversation was a brief one, with Costine questioning what seemed like a too quick rush to the town’s setting up an ambulance service in house, a conversation later with fire chief Rich Antoine revealed the matter is more complicated than Costine indicated.
Costine was a previous longtime member of the department and association, but he is no longer a member of either entity.
As reported by the Tri-Town Times, the fire department, with selectmen support, has begun the process of investigating the feasibility of bringing ambulance service in house. Department members state that the expertise, staffing and equipment already exists, and with an expensive contract with Derry for the service, it was time to look into the matter. But no decision on moving forward with an in-house option has been made, and any such decision would be made by voters.
Antoine emphasized that the association has long been a force for good in town, keeping to its mission of benefiting the Chester community and fire department. The association was set up decades ago to do that, said Antoine. It takes on various benefits, holds fundraisers for local causes, helps needy families during the holidays and holds dinners and team building events for fire department volunteers.
It also purchases equipment for the fire department. About half of the department’s vehicles have been purchased by the association, helping to keep down the taxpayer burden. These vehicles include the forestry tanker, forestry truck, utility truck, first responder sport utility vehicle, and a utility vehicle and trailer.
The association is open to all full fire department members, and all decisions are made with a majority vote, said Antoine.
Antoine, as the chief, is the president of the association but said he usually abstains from votes and acts more as a mediator between requests of the association and the membership.
So is the association buying an ambulance? Yes. But according to Antoine it’s an investment, not a headlong rush into running an ambulance service without proper vetting.
Reportedly the association was offered a used ambulance by another department at a good price. The association membership decided that the deal was too good to pass up, even without a definite need for the vehicle.
The plan is that the association will hold on to the ambulance until the town decides what to do with its service. Should the town decide to bring it in house, there will be an ambulance waiting to be used, which will avoid a substantial new vehicle purchase. If the town decides against the in-house service, the ambulance can be sold at a profit, and that money would go back into the association’s coffers.
While Antoine has opted to take a step back from the ambulance discussion, he said the association members think that it would be foolish to pass up the good deal they were offered on the ambulance.
The vehicle will be put into storage outside of town so as not to cause any confusion among residents.
During the selectmen’s meeting, Costine noted concerns that while the association was a private entity and could do what it wanted with its funds, there was a potential for the ambulance to cost the town money in repairs or eventual replacement.
Antoine argued that the town would have to make a public decision to accept the ambulance. Usually the association asks the town to take equipment it has purchased and fund insurance and registration. And, said the chief, the association has a record of handling repair and replacement costs for equipment it purchases.
To buttress that idea Antoine stated that the association recently ordered a rebuilt chassis, drive train and cab for the department’s forestry tanker. The tanker is old, maneuvers poorly and has a small engine and standard transmission, and the association decided that it could use improvement.
The association looked into grants last year for the tanker, but was unsuccessful in securing any.
Instead of asking the town to purchase a new tanker, the association has taken on the replacement cost, said Antoine. It did the same with the forestry truck a couple years ago and gave funds to the refurbishment of the town’s original 1931 Model A fire truck.
The 1800 gallons of water the 1972 tanker holds could be very useful to fire response, said Antoine, but given the vehicle’s status, it’s a weak link right now.
“The association is trying to be responsible,” said Antoine, adding that it had a long history of being so and of being a positive force in town.