Saturday, May 8, 2010

Yet another firefight

Venerable Amherst Town Meeting will discuss as part of "capital items" $15,000 for the purchase of a Thermal Imaging camera. The hand held cameras allow firefighters to essentially "see" through dense smoke.

The current cameras are ten years old and beyond their rated lifespan--especially considering their routine work environment.

I vividly recall pulling into my Health Club on Saturday morning December 4, 1999 as an Amherst Firefighter was leaving my facility. I simply could not believe that Worcester--the second largest city in Mass--did not have thermal imaging cameras in their arsenal of standard firefighting equipment.

He just shook his head, despondently.

At the height of the Worcester cold storage fire (12/3/99) a commander on the scene issued a desperate dispatch for any surrounding departments to provide thermal imaging cameras as now six of Worcester's finest were unaccounted for in an intense conflagration at an abandoned structure later dubbed "the building from Hell."

They all perished in perhaps the worst state public safety tragedy in history--only eclipsed by the horrific event of 9/11 almost two years later.

A little before that fateful day AFD Chief Keith Hoyle had started a private fundraising endeavor to purchase two thermal imaging cameras (about $15,000 each) for our town fire department and had already garnered $5,000 pledges from Amherst College and Hampshire College.

I immediately volunteered my services and formed the "Eyes of Life" committee to help raise the funds necessary to purchase two of the cameras--target goal $30,000. And I figured with Amherst and Hampshire Colleges on board, Umass should be a slam dunk for an equal amount, thus getting us about half-way there.


Umass pleaded poverty even though at the time they were costing the town over $100,000 in fire/ambulance runs to the campus with no compensation. I did the usual: wrote a scathing Amherst Bulletin column, numerous Letters to the Editor, even took out small ads trying to embarrass the areas largest employer into helping out.

By then dozens and dozens of individual contributors had donated enough to buy a camera--but we still had a fairly long way to go for the two.

Ron Hall, my favorite long-time news journalist with forty years experience at WHMP radio called me at the Club excitedly saying Umass had just issued a press release about their $10,000 donation towards the second camera. I instantly called Umass News Services to get a copy.

On careful reading turns out the "donation" consisted of a marketing coupon--"buy one get the second at half price." And Umass was not buying one or contributing anything towards the half price camera (which was rebuilt). I was insulted, but even more than that--incensed.

Especially when the Chancellor denigrated the numerous folks who actually donated money by bragging the coupon was worth more than "mere money." Well gee there Chancellor Scott, if you can describe money as "mere" than why not come up with some it yourself?

I filed a warrant article with Town Meeting to thank Amherst and Hampshire Colleges while criticizing Umass for basically being cheapskates. Meanwhile the state appropriated money for public safety emergency equipment bringing Amherst $10,000 in a grant to help defray most of the cost of a camera.

Umass did agree to front the $10,000 as the coupon could only be used by them (although I came close to pulling off the deal without the Umass coupon) and I agreed to reimburse them from the "Eyes of Life" fund.

In the end the "Eyes of Life" campaign raised just over $33,000 plus the original $10,000 Chief Hoyle had secured from the two private colleges. And Amherst was safer for it.

RE. “USEFULNESS U” [Around the Pond, Fall 2000]: The press release distributed by UMass news services almost required a thermal-imaging camera to see through the smoke obscuring the story of the university’s involvement with “Eyes of Life” ­ a campaign that secured three thermal-imaging cameras for the Amherst Fire Department. Even prior to the 1999 tragedy in Worcester, Amherst and Hampshire colleges had each pledged $5,000 towards an $18,300 camera. UMass, however, orchestrated a “deal” whereby a rebuilt camera could be had for half-price. In other words, their “cooperative effort” consisted of a coupon.
Chancellor Scott’s comment that “the university is committed to employing its resources to benefit the community; in this case, our resources extend beyond mere dollars,” added insult to parsimony. Money spent on a good cause by concerned citizens and institutions denigrated as “mere” begs the question: If you have such a low opinion of “mere money” than why not contribute some like everyone else?

Larry Kelley ’83

The writer owns the Amherst Athletic Club and chaired the “Eyes of Life” committee. The director of the UMass News Office responds:

THE UNIVERSITY’S CONTRIBUTION toward the purchase of an additional thermal-imaging camera for use by the Amherst Fire Department has been clearly stated. Through the efforts of Donald Robinson, director of environmental health and safety, the campus was able to negotiate a cost-savings of $12,000 for a second and more sophisticated model of thermal-imaging camera for use by the town.
That translates into $12,000 that did not have to be spent by anyone for the additional camera, thanks to the UMass contact. Many in Amherst, including the town’s fire chief, have publicly acknowledged the value of the university’s involvement and its very real contribution to this effort.

Barbara Pitoniak


Ed said...

Larry, there are three things that you missed in the saga from a decade ago.

First, the issue was that the second camera was needed on campus for a variety of things on campus as well and while it would be available with a radio call 24/7 and would be delivered in a red truck with sirens and red lights on it with just a radio call, UMass needed and wanted it housed here.

Second, it is only creative bookkeeping that indicated that UMass cost the town anything for ambulance runs. The town bills the UMass health plan, which at the time (haven't checked recently) provided 100% payment for ONLY the Amherst & Hamp Fire Depts. Those are the only two who got that deal - everyone else had to accept a percentage and eat the rest.

Furthermore, you got paid by virtually 100% of the students. Ambulance services in general have a lot of bad debt - when they take a homeless person to the hospital, exactly whom do they collect the bill from?

So if the ambulance service couldn't brake even with 100% payment at 100% of billing, the fire department was (is?) badly beyond mismanaged....

Third, I would like to see UMass bill Amherst for all the expenses incidental to the student volunteer engine company. Think the student insurance premiums don't go up at least a little when you are covering firemen and not just college kids?

Anonymous said...

Wouldn't work related injurious to student firefighters be covered by the town insurance? Do all student firefighters have UMASS health insurance? Isn't the risk pool for UMASS health insurance rather large to be impacted by 30 student firefighters? How many claims have those students made to their insurance from work related injuries?

It can't be more than students who drink excessively or don't look before crossing the road. Or how about students that eat unhealthy food in the dining commons... Those all must result in larger claims and a higher proportion in the risk pool than 30 volunteer firefighters who at least get exercise and don't smoke.

Perhaps we should offer an incentive to join up, instead of a surcharge.

Anonymous said...

as usual Ed has no idea what he's talking about.
Zip, nil, nada

Anonymous said...

> Wouldn't work related injurious
> to student firefighters be
> covered
> by the town insurance?

They are volunteers and not employees....

> Do all student firefighters
> have UMASS health insurance?

Yes - they are required to.

> Isn't the risk pool for UMASS
> health insurance rather large
> to be impacted by 30 student
> firefighters?

Have you dealt with an insurance company recently?

Anonymous said...

They are actually employees. The town taxes them when they do get paid. They are eligible for a number of paid details And if that isn't enough (because they would be contractors and not covered by town insurance if they were not taxed) they are also members of the county retirement system.

Personally, for a number of years while at UMASS I did not have health insurance as offered by the university. I had it from another source.

UMASS has ~26000 people. A lot most likely have the UMASS health insurance, but lets say even half do... 30/13000 is a very small segment of the risk pool.

I would assume that many plan members probably have a larger impact on the premiums with more common injuries that account for a much much larger percentage of claims. Do people who play sports pay more? People who have bad asthma? People who get into car accidents?