UPDATE:Recent fatal fire renews concerns over firefighter response time

By: Brittany Comak

Email: bcomak@abc6.com

Twitter: @BComakABC6

NEW BEDFORD, Mass. (WLNE) – The New Bedford firefighters union is once again calling on the city to end its policy of “blacking out” certain engines when the department is short-staffed.

The city’s black out policy sometimes leaves one random truck unstaffed to save money. The department has been operating under the policy for at least ten years.

The closest engine to the fire on Myrtle Street Saturday night that killed 88-year-old Robert Seamans was out of service.

“I believe that there was a blackout at the fire department today and they were saying that’s actually why there were not here on time,” said neighbor Holly Thomas Saturday night.

The department says the fire appears to have been an electrical event in the kitchen, but because of the damage to the wiring and appliances, the fire will remain undetermined, officially.

On the kitchen countertop level there was a toaster, a can opener, and a coffee maker, and a 3-way adapter plugin one outlet, as well as a microwave, plugged into an extension cord. 

According to the department, it was impossible to determine which, if any, of the appliances were actually plugged in or in use at the time of the fire. 

In October, 85-year-old Louise Barboza was killed in a space heater fire on Coffin Avenue.

In both cases, the closest engine couldn’t respond.

On Saturday, the department did respond within the national standard time, which was just under four minutes according to the Fire Chief Paul Coderre.

But Fire Union President Bill Sylvia says he believes the blackout policy is both a public safety risk, and risk for the firefighters.

“It took four minutes from the original 9-1-1 call. Instead of this one that was shut down – it could have been a minute, it could have been less,” said Sylvia.

However the closest engine Saturday night, just seven blocks away at station seven, couldn’t respond because of the policy, costing the department precious seconds.

“There’s nothing that you can say to somebody that doesn’t get the help in the time that they need that’s going to make it right,” said Sylvia. “You can’t put a dollar sign on it. You can’t put anything like that. The people in this city deserve a fully manned, fully staffed, adequate fire department.”

Sylvia called the blackout policy a “roll of the dice” and a game the city has been playing that, before October, didn’t have any consequences. But now the union hopes recent events could change their minds.

“If this engine is still in service and not blacked out for the day, does it change things? Does the outcome change? Is there still unfortunately a fatality? I can’t answer that,” said Sylvia. “I don’t think anybody else can answer that. But is there a better chance? Does it change the narrative? Does it change everything going on? Absolutely.”

We reached out to the city for comment but a spokesperson for the mayor simply sent ABC 6 a statement from the fire chief saying that the response time fit the national standard.

© WLNE-TV 2019