Board seeks answers in firefighter special duty

BROOKLINE – In recent months, two town firefighters have shown up at school events where 300 or more people were present, and afterwards the School Board was billed $42 per hour per firefighter for the special duty assignment.

Now the Board of Selectmen is asking Assistant Fire Chief Scott Knowles to provide a copy of the state fire law that requires firefighters at such events.

At the same time, the School Board wants to know why it was in the dark about the rule until it received a bill for more than $1,000.

“It was a large shock to us,” School Board member Marcia Farwell said, adding that the board did not budget the expense in either its current budget or the one for the next school year.Farwell said the Board of Selectmen set the $38-an-hour rate, which was increased from $4 to $42 to include federal taxes, without consulting the school board.

The hourly rate is roughly four times what volunteer firefighters in the department earn when they respond to a call, Farwell said, adding that board members are hoping that some firefighters will agree to do the job as volunteers, given that their children attend the local schools.

“Do we really have to do this, by law?” Farwell said she wants to know.

Her colleagues on the School Board had similar reactions.

“All I know is, they started showing up, and the bills started rolling in,” School Board member Beth Lukovits said Tuesday, a day after the selectmen’s meeting where the assistant fire chief told the board that the Richard Maghakian Memorial School and Captain Samuel Douglass Academy needed “crowd control,” or trained ushers during school events that draw large crowds.

Fire chief Charles Corey said the special duty firefighters are being used as a fallback until the state fire marshal’s office decides if sprinklers should be installed in the gyms at both schools.

“What this is, is a Band-Aid until they get the sprinklers,” Corey said.

According to recent news reports, the state fire marshal’s office cited safety issues at two schools in New Ipswich, which have been allowed to stay open through the remainder of the school year.

Officials said concerns about adequate fire safety measures in the Brookline schools, and the possible need for sprinklers, came up several months ago, while the state fire marshal was visiting the Maghakian school to discuss lockdown plans.

The Maghakian school is considerably older than the Douglass academy, and officials said it’s possible that only the older school will be required to install a sprinkler system after the state completes its analysis of the two buildings.

Under state fire-safety regulations, classrooms with sprinklers are allowed to have artwork covering 50 percent of the walls and 20 percent of the walls in the halls.

Ceilings must remain clear.

Chris Wyman, an investigator for the state fire marshal’s office, speaking for the fire marshal, said that under the state fire code, the local fire chief has the authority to request that firefighters attend school events.

Wyman said the law says the chief may require firefighters to be present, based on the type of event, the size of the crowd and the potential for hazard.

According to state fire code, any time more than 250 people are gathered inside a building, the host agency must have two “crowd managers” on standby, trained ushers to direct people to their seats and point out emergency exits.

For crowds of up to 250, one usher is sufficient under the state code.

The state does not require two firefighters to stand watch inside a building when the crowd numbers more than 299 people, Wyman said.

Instead, the state fire code gives the fire chief the authority to make that decision.

The state code, however, dictates that the fire marshal’s office determines whether or not a public building requires sprinklers, based on building plans and sometimes a site visit.

School and town officials weren’t clear about this.

Two weeks ago, selectmen voted to set the rate for firefighter watch duty at $38 an hour, the same amount police officers receive for special details.

School Board officials, however, wanted to know why – and how – this had happened.

“We want to follow the rules. We want to do what’s safe. We don’t have answers to any of these questions,” Lukovits, the school board member, said Tuesday.

“We haven’t seen the law. We don’t know what triggered it,” Lukovits said.

The Board of Selectmen is expected to discuss the issue during its regular meeting today.