Haverhill Fire Chief O’Brien Lists His Priorities, Makes Candid Appeal to City Councilors For Help

Haverhill Fire Chief Robert O’Brien told councilors in May of 2022 he is not “getting everything I want” in the fire department budget. Firefighter Ryan Fairbanks is seated behind the chief. (WHAV News file photograph.)

On the heels of a recent outside study of the Haverhill Fire Department, Fire Chief Robert M. O’Brien told city councilors this week his top priorities are adding firefighters, upgrading stations and hiring an assistant chief.

As WHAV detailed more than a month ago, the review by Washington-based Center for Public Safety Management called for calls for better fire stations, added staffing and a slow-down approach to using civilian dispatchers, among other conclusions. This past Tuesday’s City Council discussion, however, saw O’Brien’s bluntly rank his top priorities.

“This is stuff we’ve been asking for, for years. This is stuff that keeps falling by the wayside,” he said. The chief went on to give a full-throated plea to add four firefighters to the central Water Street station that will serve immediate and future needs.

“That will staff a ladder. That will carry us through the Basiliere Bridge construction project. Is that the end of it? No. I’m not going to lie to you. We need a second ladder in this city. Period. I’m sorry that offends people or people think they know better. I’m the expert in the room on this. Sorry. I am,” O’Brien said.

Of the four new firefighters the mayor agreed to add last year at the High Street station, the chief noted a backlog at the state firefighting academy means they will not even begin until summer and won’t graduate until November.

The study notes that not only is there no fire station office for the fire chief—he works from City Hall—but that he has to pull Deputy Fire Chief Eric Tarpy, who heads up fire prevention, away from other duties when he needs a second set of hands. “I brought it up last year. It got shot down. I’m in discussions with the mayor right now as far as an assistant chief. It’s long overdue. It’s ridiculous to keep saying ‘We need this. We need to do this. Geez, you’re failing that training’ without giving staff. There is no admin staff,” he said.

One of the authors of the study, former Fire Chief Joseph E. Pozzo described Haverhill as an “island” when it comes to obtaining mutual aid from border towns. O’Brien went further, saying it is not realistic to believe help from surrounding communities can solve Haverhill’s shortages.

“In terms of the mutual aid argument, in terms of getting better agreements with them, that’s great. They don’t have the resources to do it. We are the big brother in the room,” he explained. The chief said Haverhill does share its training materials with surrounding departments to ensure everyone works better as a group and keep each other safe.

Pozzo pointed out the study backs a decades-old calls for a new Broadway-area fire station. He said a multipurpose building could replace the Ayer’s Village call station with dedicated space for a master mechanic, storage for spare equipment, house the Ayer’s Village call unit and possibly a rescue company.

O’Brien told councilors he will fight again during this spring’s budget deliberations for resources. “I am going to ask you, beg you, for the third time. I need facilities to put this stuff in. We’re paying huge money for this equipment and we’re leaving it outside,” O’Brien said.

Councilor Michael S. McGonagle, chairman of the Council’s Public Safety Committee, said of the priority list, “This is a road map. This is a path.” Council Vice President John A. Michitson suggested McGonagle’s committee is “going to have to drill down” and list the needs in a five-year plan. On his motion, backed by Councilor Melinda E. Barrett, members agreed unanimously.

A second motion by Michitson, backed by Councilor Shaun P. Toohey, asks the state to consider parting with some of its unused land at Interstate 495 and Broadway for a new station. It was also approved unanimously.

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