By Toni Caushi
BU News Service
CHARLTON, Mass. – White flakes of paint hung from the walls of the Charlton Fire Department headquarters, while less than 10 minutes away Charlton residents waited in line to vote at Heritage School gym on Tuesday morning.
Uniquely, residents of Charlton’s four precincts saw three questions on their ballots, as opposed to the two that much of the rest of the state voted on. The third question asked residents whether they would agree to allow the town to take a cut from proposition 2 ½ for the construction of a new facility, one that would be shared by both the fire and police departments.
The Charlton Public Safety Building Project invites residents to see why the third ballot question is necessary through a detailed outline of the project and a video which almost every resident who is familiar with Question 3 knows about.
Despite that, Capt. Brian Ouellette said, “no one comes.”
At the Charlton Fire Department, Ouellette started his 24-hour shift at 8 a.m., one hour after the voting line had started. Like every other morning, he didn’t expect any visitors at the headquarters station.
However, had someone walked in, Ouellette would have welcomed them as not only one of the four captains of the fire department, but also as a member of the Charlton Public Safety Building Committee. He would have taken them through the two-floor building that houses four groups of five Firefighter/EMTs at 24-hour shifts, seven days a week.
Built in 1958 and renovated in 1968, the station doesn’t accommodate a lot of space. In a one-yard-wide corridor formed between the tightly parked fire trucks and walls where the bunk gear hangs lies the space where firefighters have to prepare for a call – while trying not to run into each other.
Once the trucks are on, the firefighters have to be careful not to scrape the corners of the truck against the frame of the bay, given that the trucks are less than an inch narrower and shorter than the doors.
But such problems are not as apparent in Station 3, which sits across the street from the headquarters. Ouellette explained that the metallic structure, which is nothing more than a storage for the one-ladder truck and some training equipment, was built through a series of donations and work provided by the corrections facility.
Fireman EMT Ian Haggerty sees issues with having the ladder truck parked separately from the headquarters, citing time as a crucial factor.
“If a call dictates for a ladder truck, we have to get our gear on, run across the street, obviously checking for traffic,” Haggerty said. “[We have to] get into the building, start the truck up, and then get the truck on the road, which is a significant delay behind the engine company.”
Once firemen come back from a call, they have to enter the building from the front door, where a visitor would enter and where the dispatcher sits behind plexiglass. The glass cubicle is set up in front of a space not much bigger than a closet where just-used hi-vis jackets are thrown into and wait to be washed.
Firefighter paramedic Ben Romano expressed concern over the highly hazardous materials in the smoke that cling to their jackets while working and then linger in an area which is not designated for burning materials to hover in.
“With cancer being such a hot topic in the fire service, having that gear out in the apparatus bay instead of in a clean area puts us at an even higher risk of all those contaminants and carcinogens,” Romano said. “That’s something that directly affects us now and will continue to affect us down the road.”
Given the pandemic, an extra layer of caution has been added to the firefighters’ routine, but the building arrangement forces them to abide by movement that could pose risks of COVID-19 spread. They dress and wash their clothes and jackets in the same space, and dry clothes by hanging them on a tube that runs in the same space along the trucks, or in front of a fan for heavier jackets.
Hi-vis jackets pile on plastic boxes, which the captain says are placed there due to absence of storage. The same problem has affected the medical equipment, which is all squeezed in a 10-by-3 feet space and piled in boxes over the medical closet.
Talks about renovations have been on the minds of the Charlton board for three years now, but residents have repeatedly approached the conversation with unforgiving skepticism.
At the dispatching desk, Ouellette explains how in August of 2019, a debt exclusion vote was considered, but failed. He has been part of the board for three years now, seeing how far the project has come, where for a $100,000 property the yearly tax would be $75, which converts to $0.58 per day.
Just down the road, the police department also wants to become part of the renovation. Patrolman Derek Gaylord sees the many issues in the department.
“There’s not enough staff and the building doesn’t flow and doesn’t set up right,” Gaylord said. “The only rest area for dispatchers is with the prisoners.”
Similarly to the fire department, the police station has problems with space and adequate storage.
“Whether it be drugs, guns, and then fingerprints, or anything along those lines that’s held in our basement, in a cage – literally a cage,” Gaylord said.
Chairman of the Board of Selectmen Karen Spiewak sees the vote as an absolutely necessary direction for where the town should go. At 7 a.m. she held signs demanding “Vote YES on Question 3” alongside Haggerty and Romano at Heritage School, who often work closely with Ouellette.
Spiewak said she believes that taxes scare some of the voters into opposing this program, but this time around she believes that the issues posed last time are addressed and resolved, and that will result in a Yes vote.
“For some people, this could impact them negatively or they can’t afford [the tax],” Spiewak said. “So we’re really looking at every single issue that arises.”
As voting sites across Massachusetts and across the country start to close, the 13,000 residents of Charlton will expect the answer to this extra question, to decide the happiness and safety of their community.
“At the end of the day it’s kicked down the road so long,” Spiewak said. “I really want to get down to doing everything in our power.”