Amherst downtown fire station. Photo: Art Keene

Editor’s note: This letter was originally sent to all members of the Town Council and to the Town Manager.

In formulating Amherst’s next Town Budget, please include funding for 10 additional firefighter/paramedics.

For more than 50 years, I understand, Amherst has been talking about a new firehouse to replace our historic downtown firehouse, built in 1928. It has asbestos. A new firehouse has become more urgent since the public has learned what asbestos does to the lungs. Yet we still ask our on-duty Amherst firefighter/paramedics to work and to sleep in a building with asbestos.

The first law I practiced was workers’ compensation law. A pulmonologist who advised our office informed us that one good whiff of asbestos will produce mesothelioma 20 years later.  Mesothelioma is a rare and vicious cancer of the lungs. That’s a risk to our firefighters’ health and lives right there.

But it is a shock to learn how understaffed our Amherst Fire Department is. Fire Chief W. Tim Nelson reportedly says that we need TEN more (from 42 to 52) firefighter/paramedics.  That would enable 11 on-duty at all times, rather than the 7-8 currently.

For comparison, Northampton has a 2010 census population of about 28,500. That’s some 10,000 less than that of Amherst.  Nonetheless, Northampton reportedly has 13 firefighters on duty at a time. Amherst’s 7-8 firefighter/paramedics are too few to staff 4 ambulances and a fire truck. So Amherst is frequently calling other towns for “mutual aid” back-up, and calling in off-duty career, call force, and student firefighters to cover calls.  Last week an Amherst firefighter had to be rushed to the hospital when injured fighting the fire at the Hampshire Fitness Center, down the street from my house. Given Amherst’s other emergencies that night, this meant no ambulance for an Amherst resident who was non-responsive. Our Fire Department had to call one from Granby. 

Chief Nelson reportedly estimates the cost of additional firefighter/paramedics at $80,000 each per year (including benefits). So: What is the value of a human life in Amherst? 

With best regards,

Sarah McKee
Sarah McKee has been a resident of Amherst for nearly twenty years.

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