Today, the Topsfield Fire Department is implementing its first staffing change in almost two decades. Staffing concerns have been a re-occurring theme between the Fire Chief, past and present, and Town administration for well over thirty years. The Town of Topsfield continues to grow and change, as does the responsibilities of the American fire service. Chief Ronald H. Giovannacci hired the first full-time firefighter in the early 1980’s, and soon thereafter, hired two additional full-time firefighters. From the 1980’s until 2005 the department had a station manned from the hours of 6:00 AM to 6:00 PM with staggered shifts. The station remained unmanned on weekends, nights, and holidays. In 2005 with the department now under the leadership of Chief Ronald P. Giovannnacci, at the Annual Town Meeting, an article was voted-in to add one additional firefighter to the ranks of TFD. Since 2005, the fire department has been staffed 6:00 AM to 6:00 PM, seven days a week, and including holidays. The fire station, however, has remained unmanned between the hours of 6:00 PM and 6:00 AM with no guarantee of a response from our staff.
The annual emergency run total in 2005 was approximately 700 calls. In 2018, the Topsfield Fire Department responded to more than 1,000 emergency calls. Chief Ronald P. Giovannacci attempted many times to bolster the department’s ability to respond to emergencies around the clock. Challenges continued to arise from the lack of staff within the station between the hours of 6:00 PM and 6:00 AM. Those challenges continue still today as the responsibilities of the fire service across the country increase, and the little Town of Topsfield continues to grow and change.
Following Chief Giovannacci’s retirement, Interim Chief Richard Harris recognized the staffing issues, and began to echo his predecessor’s concerns. The Fire Department began to accept applications from prospective firefighters in neighboring towns that could still meet the emergency response requirements. However, emergency calls at night continued to be met with a response of one, and sometimes zero, firefighters. The safety of the public and responding firefighters was at risk.
Following the hiring of Chief Jenifer Collins-Brown in 2017, and through a cooperative effort with the Town Administrator and Board of Selectmen, as well as a study of neighboring ‘combination’ fire departments, a new ‘paid-on-call’ system was put into place. Under this system, three members of the fire department would be paid a stipend of $50.00 per night, to remain within the response district, ready to report and respond to the station for any emergency between the hours of 6:00 PM and 6:00 AM. Due to obligations, such as family, work, and other commitments, the new response system proved unsuccessful, as only 17% of the available shifts were able to be filled.
Starting July 1, 2019, the Topsfield Fire Department will introduce a new evening staffing model. The fire station will be manned between the hours of 6:00 PM and 12:00 AM, Sunday through Thursday. Friday’s and Saturday’s will see the fire station manned in the evening between the hours of 6:00 PM and 6:00 AM. These times were identified as the highest likelihood of an emergency occurring. By using money that mostly existed within the Fire Department’s Annual Operating Budget and some appropriated at our last Town Meeting, this new model is a creative attempt to guarantee a response to all emergencies in Topsfield, as well as reduce the strain on the outdated callback system. The new evening staffing model is a result of collaboration between Chief Collins-Brown, the Board of Selectmen, the Town Administrator, the Finance Committee, and both Topsfield Fire Department bargaining units.
Chief Collins-Brown truly appreciates the community’s support and the ongoing cooperation between the Town of Topsfield and the Topsfield Fire Department to provide the best services and protection for all citizens and visitors of Topsfield. “Though we still do not have a guaranteed response for the hours of midnight to six in the morning Sunday through Thursday, this is a step in the right direction. We will continue to look seriously at staffing in the most cost effective way to ensure the safety of our staff and the residents of Topsfield,” said Chief Collins-Brown.