As more homes are built at the former South Weymouth Naval Air Station, Weymouth officials must figure out how to meet the growing demands on public safety services while staffing levels at the police and fire departments are at their lowest in years.
“It’s a critical time in Weymouth right now,” said Town Councilor Patrick O’Connor, who chairs the council’s Public Safety Committee. “It’s sort of the perfect storm. You have all this growth, and then you have a Police Department that’s lost so many sworn officers and a Fire Department that’s been decimated in the last 25 years.”
“We’re now in a situation where we’re covering more area,” said O’Connor. “Now, more than ever, we need those police officers on the street and firefighters in the trucks.”
The Weymouth Police Department went from 115 officers in 1980 to 92 in 2012. In 1981, the Weymouth Fire Department operated five fire engines and three ladders with a squad of 137 uniformed firefighters, according to Weymouth Firefighters IAFF Local 1616. Today, the fire department has three engines, one ladder, and 87 firefighters within its ranks.
Mayor Susan M. Kay acknowledged that the town does not have as many police officers and firefighters as it once had in the 1980s. “I don’t think,’’ she added, “there’s any community that does.
“Is this town unsafe? Absolutely not,” said Kay. “Are we in excess? Absolutely not. We are below the levels that we had in comfy times. I would love to be back to that. I would like to see more on our force.”
Local officials will be grappling with the question of how many police officers and firefighters are needed as the town prepares for the eventual arrival of thousands of people at the old military base next door, which has been renamed SouthField. Alternative arrangements are being drawn up to meet future needs.
The US Navy opened the South Weymouth Naval Air Station in 1942. In the decades following World War II, Weymouth’s population surged to a peak of 55,601 in 1980, then stagnated and declined slightly through the 1980s and 1990s. The 2010 Census put Weymouth’s population at 53,743.
But the redevelopment of the air base, which closed in 1997, means that growth is on the horizon. At full build-out, SouthField will include as many as 2,855 homes, as well as 2 million square feet of commercial space, an 18-hole golf course, an ice skating rink, tennis courts, artificial turf fields, and an indoor athletic facility.
The South Shore Tri-Town Development Corp., the agency that oversees SouthField, has agreements in place to get its public safety services from the town of Weymouth.
According to the terms of the deal, the town of Weymouth provides police patrols through SouthField at a rate of $53 per hour, and Tri-Town is charged $421.75 for every emergency call. Every time a fire truck makes a run to SouthField, Tri-Town is charged $1,642.53.
This agreement remains effective through June 2014, and could be renegotiated. If any problems arise, “there is a provision for us to sit down and talk and look at other avenues,” said Kevin R. Donovan, chief executive officer of Tri-Town.
If that were to occur, Donovan said, Tri-Town would most likely turn to Rockland or Abington to fulfill its need for police and fire services.
So far, about 226 apartments and 35 homes and townhouses have been completed at SouthField. The new neighborhood has been neither plagued by crime waves nor engulfed in flames, but it has produced its share of emergency calls.
Weymouth police responded to 24 emergency calls from SouthField in July, August, and September of this year, in addition to conducting 298 regular patrols of the development. During that time, Weymouth firefighters made 18 runs there.
Looking ahead, the sheer size of the proposed development concerns Weymouth public safety officials. Under current arrangements, they would be expected to protect a community that’s about the size of Avon geographically, but more densely populated (Avon has has 1,769 households; SouthField could have up to 2,855).
Tri-Town hired a consultant, former Boston Fire Chief Kevin MacCurtain, to come up with a plan for the future. In his March 2012 report, MacCurtain recommended building a three-bay fire station at SouthField by 2015.
MacCurtain also said it currently takes Weymouth firefighters seven to eight minutes to get to SouthField, “far longer than the national standard of five minutes, required by the American Heart Association, for first responders.”
Donovan said Tri-Town considers MacCurtain’s recommendations to be a “a blueprint for now and into the future.” The exact timeline for a new fire station will “depend on how our finances are,” he said.
Donovan said Tri-Town has worked with Weymouth to apply for a grant from the US Fire Administration to hire firefighters and purchase a fire engine. They are still waiting to find out if they won the grant, he said.
Rick Ramponi, the president of Local 1616, said Weymouth’s Fire Department is already understaffed. He also wants to see a fire station established at SouthField. As it stands, he said, “we can’t get there in time to help anybody.”
Ramponi said the firefighters union plans to do some informational picketing as a way to alert the public of the union’s concerns. (Meanwhile, the town and firefighters are in arbitration to reach an agreement on a new contract; the last one expired in July 2010. Ramponi said the staffing concerns are a separate issue from the contract talks).
Kay said she is committed to making sure there are enough Weymouth police officers and firefighters, adding that four police recruits will soon be coming out of the academy.
Acting Weymouth Fire Chief Joseph Davis and Police Chief Richard C. Grimes did not return phone calls seeking comment for this story.
As for SouthField, Kay said, “We understand that’s going to grow, and we need to keep an eye on it.” She said establishing a fire station at SouthField would be a good idea.
“They had a fire station when the Navy was in there,” she said. “At full-build out, it would be very wise to have a station there.’’Emily Sweeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @emilysweeney.