By GAIL OBER, LACONIA DAILY SUN
BELMONT — The town of Sanbornton is looking for some firefighting assistance, and on Monday night they came to Belmont as part of their ongoing efforts to find it.
The committee of eight from Sanbornton, led by David DeVoy, asked Belmont selectmen if and at what price they would be willing to offer some assistance in the area near Lake Winnisquam.
"We've been meeting since August to see if we can reach out to our neighboring communities," said DeVoy who, though he is a Belknap County Commissioner, was acting solely on behalf of his hometown.
Sanbornton faces a complex firefighting dilemma. With a population of just under 3,000 people, a largely residential tax base, and 49.77 square miles of territory, the fire department has but one full-time employee, Chief Paul Dexter.
With Dexter and an array of per diem firefighters, the town is able to provide fire and emergency services during the day from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. The times when Sanbornton could use some assistance is from 5 to 8 a.m. and 4 to 7 p.m.
Because people are getting out and about in the morning and returning home in the evening, coupled with a lack of manpower at the Sanbornton Fire Station, those six hours present a "hurdle to get a truck on the road," said Dexter. He added those times represent about 8 percent of Sanbornton's total call volume.
The question presented to the Belmont selectmen is whether they are willing and able to assist during those hours, primarily with medical calls.
"What I hear," said selectmen's Chairman Ruth Mooney, "is that we have a full-time fire department and you don't."
Mooney went on to say that it makes her a little nervous and she would not agree to any commitment without Sanbornton having a full-time department.
"What if we pay you?" asked DeVoy.
Fire Chief Ken Erickson said he didn't think that Belmont is necessarily the best town to assist Sanbornton because of the location of the Belmont Fire Station.
"It's a 20-minute response time," said Erickson, who noted that Laconia or Tilton-Northfield is probably better located physically than was Belmont for that area of Sanbornton.
When someone mentioned "mutual aid," Dexter was quick to say that this is not a mutual aid concern.
Mutual aid is called when one community needs another community's assistance, however, each individual community must be able to put the first piece of equipment on the road. In other words, if there is an accident in Sanbornton, the first piece of equipment like an ambulance or a fire truck must come from Sanbornton. Should there be a need for a second piece of equipment or manpower, a nearby community will be called.
Sanbornton needs someone who can get the first piece of equipment on the road during those certain times of day.
Erickson suggested that Sanbornton needs to define for itself what risk level they are willing to accept.
"It's a complicated issue," Erickson said. "You have to decide what you want and what you're willing to pay for."
Erickson also reminded the Sanbornton delegation that this is a political discussion.
"Fire chiefs can't change anything," he said. "It requires the politicians to get involved."
Erickson said that, in his opinion, regionalization is the way to go, but local people in New England would have to be willing to shed 400 years of history to make it happen.
"Historically, we were all villages and that's where all our fire stations are," he said.
Belmont Selectman Ron Cormier said that no one has ever come up with a county-wide plan, saying everyone always worries about who's getting the better end of a deal. He said he'd be interested in seeing someone come up with a map of what regionalizing fire services would look like for Belknap County.
Dexter and Erickson both told him that the conversations and cooperation between chiefs are much more frequent and beneficial now than they were even 10 to 15 years ago, especially for large equipment purchases.
So while it appears that Sanbornton may have left Belmont empty-handed for the moment, the meetings its committee has scheduled with government bodies in its surrounding communities may soon start a discussion about regionalizing some services that many in the room Monday night felt should have begun years ago.