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CENTRAL FALLS, R.I. — At the height of the pandemic, in a small city ravaged by COVID-19, the new fire chief discovered that his department didn’t have a functioning ambulance.

Replacing it seemed impossible, in the poorest city in the state, barely a decade out of bankruptcy.

Fire Chief Scott G. Mello, who’d arrived in March after a 32-year career at the Providence Fire Department, was shocked. Despite $25,000 in repairs, the only ambulance in Central Falls kept breaking down, sometimes as soon as it left the shop. No amount of repairs would keep it on the road for long.

Mello said he called every fire department in Rhode Island, as well as departments in bordering municipalities in Massachusetts, asking to borrow their ambulances.

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“It started to become an issue,” Mello said Wednesday. “Citizens and councilpeople would walk by and say, ‘Why is there an Attleboro rescue here? Why is there a Cranston rescue here? Why is there a Pawtucket rescue here? Why is there a Swanzey rescue here?’ We were borrowing from all over the place.”

He immediately appealed to Mayor Maria Rivera to buy a new ambulance for the firefighters. “I’m a relentless advocate,” Mello said. “These guys are like my sons, so I want to give them whatever they need to succeed. The only way they can succeed is with new equipment.

The mayor put the city’s fund developer Derek Collamati to work writing grants.

Fast-forward seven months, and Central Falls now has a new $315,000 ambulance, a second on the way in March, new equipment, other new vehicles for the Fire Department, and funding for training -- paid for with an assortment of $800,000 in competitive federal grants obtained in a collaboration with Rhode Island Commerce, Rhode Island’s congressional delegation, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and FEMA.

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At a press conference at Veterans Memorial Park on Wednesday, the new ambulance was parked nearby, its motto “Doing it All” painted on the side.

Central Falls Fire Chief Scott G. Mello speaks about city’s purchase of two new ambulances, after doing without for eight months.
Central Falls Fire Chief Scott G. Mello speaks about city’s purchase of two new ambulances, after doing without for eight months.Amanda Milkovits

Mello thanked all of those who pushed to obtain funding to buy state-of-the-art ambulances and equipment for the city’s firefighters, and singled out the mayor. I’ve never seen a mayor support a fire department like Mayor Rivera,” Mello said.

Central Falls was hit the hardest by COVID-19, which meant the first-responders were working under even more challenging conditions, Governor Dan McKee said. “Our communities rely so heavily on our first responders, perhaps now more than ever, and it is crucial that we continue to support them and utilize available federal resources.”

A $315,000 HUD Community Development Block grant paid for the first new ambulance. Another $443,000 from FEMA Assistance to Firefighters is paying for the second ambulance and firefighter training. The city is also getting $41,000 funding from a USDA Rural Development Grant for Fire Department staff vehicles and equipment, plus another $250,000 from USDA for another Fire Department vehicle, a street cleaner for the city public works, three police cruisers, and handheld radios for all of the city police officers.

U.S. Senator Jack Reed, who is a senior member of the Appropriations Committee, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, and Congressman David Cicilline, said they were glad to see the federal grant programs supporting public safety in the city.

As the dignitaries spoke, several firefighters stood nearby listening. Mello pointed to them and thanked them. “Trust me, the backbone of every fire department is standing right there, the men and women,” Mello told the crowd. “They are the people who still run into burning buildings. They are the people who go on every rescue run in this COVID crisis, storms, tropical storms, hurricanes — it doesn’t matter. They’re on duty, 24-7, servicing the residents of this city.”

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Amanda Milkovits can be reached at amanda.milkovits@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMilkovits.