By Hiroko Sato
DEVENS -- If last week's explosion of runaway train cars that devastated a small Quebec town seems like a freak accident that would never happen here, Devens Fire Chief Joseph LeBlanc says think again.
From crude oil to ethanol fuel, trains that pass through the local industrial park carry all sorts of hazardous materials bound elsewhere across the continent, LeBlanc said. They could spill or catch fire, and it would be the local first responders' job to do what they can until the hazmat teams arrive there.
With more than 3,600 people working daily at local manufacturers, science labs, warehouse and other establishments in Devens, it's conceivable that someone might get trapped in a confined space or a trench. And, what if Army soldiers hurt themselves in a shooting practice?
Whatever the scenario may be, the firefighters need not only skills but also special equipment to deal with such emergency. And, the $200,134 in a federal grant recently given to the Devens Fire Department will go a long way to help the firefighters do their job and, in turn, help the people in the community, LeBlanc said.
"Every 10 years, you've got to give (the firefighters) new gear," which costs money, LeBlanc said.
The Devens Fire Department received $200,134 in the Department of Homeland Security's Assistance to Firefighters Grant program, which was created to help fire departments purchase proper equipment. Combining the grant with a $10,533 match from MassDevelopment, the department plans to purchase state-of-the-art breathing apparatus and protective clothing for all of its 21 crew members.
LeBlanc said the grant is huge help as federal and state funding for local fire departments continues to dwindle. The department that serves the 4,400-acre former Army post community currently operates on a $2.24 million budget, which includes the $200,134.
MassDevelopment, the quasi-state economic development agency tasked to redevelop and provide municipal services to Devens, funds the fire department out of its own operational budget that does not involve taxpayer money.
Devens' 21 full-time firefighters, which include the chief, are all full-time because the largely industrial community does not have residents who can serve as on-call firefighters. The department responded to more about 800 calls during fiscal 2012 -- a drop from more than 2,200 calls in fiscal 2011.
LeBlanc said having fewer large manufacturing facilities compared to several years ago may be a factor. Gillette discontinued its packaging operation in Devens in 2008, and Evergreen Solar shut down its plant in March 2011. Last year's calls included many medical calls but few structure fires or serious accidents, LeBlanc said. But, inspections, fire alarm services, fire safety education and disaster preparations keep the firefighters busy.
Staffed with full-time firefighters, the department is able to respond to an emergency site within two to three minutes after a call. The chief and seven other firefighters man Devens' only fire station at the corner of Barnum and Jackson roads from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. and four firefighters from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m.
The Devens Fire Department also serves as a Massachusetts Decontamination Unit for districts 6 and 8, which cover northern Middlesex County and a part of Worcester County. MDU departments have trucks that are outfitted with equipment to rinse off such contaminants as pepper spray. Each fire district has a few MDUs. Devens has five vehicles, including one with an MDU unit and two pumper trucks.
With fire trucks and equipment becoming more expensive, it's now common for fire departments to share their expertise and equipment, LeBlanc said. Devens focuses on industrial emergencies, including confined space, trench and high angle rescue missions. Scenarios range from rescuing someone stuck inside a sewer line to getting a rock climber off a cliff. The department also supports the Army. The firefighters participate in Pan Am Railway's emergency drills.
"Training is an ongoing, day-to-day operation here," LeBlanc said.
The breathing apparatus that the department will buy, which has a polycarbonate, light-weight and reinforced air tank and the device that warns firefighters of dangers, costs more than $4,000 each. It has a shelf life of 10 years. Fire engines, protective clothing and all other items age, too.
The department's fiscal 2014 budget includes $9,000 in noncompetitive federal and state grants. The budget has gone up and down -- as it did from $2.08 million in fiscal 2011 to $1.98 million in fiscal 2012 -- depending on MassDevelopment's overall revenue, according to LeBlanc. The department has made due with what it had and has not laid off firefighters, he said.
The department could purchase new equipment and vehicles gradually, but that would take up to 10 years to replace them all. This is why Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program and Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response are important to communities, according to the office of Rep. Niki Tsongas, D-MA, who pushed for the funding for the Devens grant.
The Devens Fire Department received these needed federal funds through a competitive grant process, which speaks to both the quality of their application and the Department in general," Tsongas said in the press release. "Given the constraints on state and local budgets, competitive grant funds such as these help to maintain public safety in our communities and provide first responders access to the resources they need to save lives.
"Our volunteer and career firefighters sacrifice a great deal to protect our communities and it is our duty to provide them with the equipment and training they need to keep their departments running safely and efficiently," the press release states.
"With this new gear, Devens firefighters will be better equipped in a crisis to protect themselves and therefore the community," said MassDevelopment President and CEO Marty Jones.