Andover Fire Chief Justin Tibbetts 

Engine 41, Andover’s newest firetruck, leaves the station for downed electric wires at 83 Cross Road on Tuesday. 

ANDOVER — If there were a major fire at 2 a.m., some residents could be in trouble, firefighter and former Selectman Jim Adler said.

“The manpower has always been an issue, it’s just right now it’s at an all-time low for people who are really qualified to do anything,” he said. “In my opinion, I’ve never seen the manpower in Andover this low. Right now, depending on who’s around during the day, if it’s two o’clock in the morning, I’m it.”

Of the 13 volunteers who show up regularly for training and equipment checks, Adler is the only one in town qualified to wear a self-contained breathing apparatus, which is required for firefighters entering a burning building, he said.

The state’s standards for fire safety also require at least two firefighters equipped with air packs inside the building and two firefighters outside the building, he added.

The volunteer fire department is comprised of Chief Justin Tibbetts of Mexico; Deputy Chief Ken Dixon and Capt. Dennis Hall, both of Andover; EMT Fred Dethridge and about eight other firefighters, besides Adler, from Andover or the nearby towns of Hanover, Mexico and Rumford.

Another problem is the lack of equipment in good working condition, Adler said.

The Fire Station houses three engines, a ladder truck, and a rescue ambulance. But the problem is Engine 43 has not run in over a year and needs to have its batteries boosted to start it,” Adler said. And the ladder truck has been down all winter and still needs to be fixed.

Engine 2 is ready to use but also has not been operated in more than a year so Adler is not sure firefighters could use it confidently.

“Which leaves one engine and one rescue vehicle” available for an emergency, he said.

What the town needs

“As a town, we need (people) to participate on an individual level,” Adler said.

This doesn’t have to mean putting on an air pack and running into the fire. It takes many hands to pull together to get the job done. “We need drivers, we need support staff on the fire scene and at the station,” he said.

On Tuesday, Deputy Chief Ken Dixon, who was chief from 1985 to 2000, agreed manpower is a problem.

“I don’t believe money is an issue. The town supports the Fire Department moneywise,” he said, “(but) they do not support them in participation at all. I attribute that to a number of reasons. This being a volunteer fire department company the membership has to have ownership in order to feel good. It’s a club, let’s face it. It’s a family affair, whether you’re actual blood family or whatever, it’s a very close-set family because of the nature of the business here … when you go to a call your life is depending on your partner.”

He said the community needs to know the department can use the help.

“There’s a job for everybody here, I don’t care if they’re handicapped or whatever, you can come in and do truck checks, you can come in and mop the floors, help reload a truck after it comes back from (a fire), wash it down, help in the cook house, fundraising … the list goes on and on,” Dixon said. “We do our own in-house repairs for minor stuff; replacing broken light bulbs, painting new stripes on the floor, and routine maintenance.”

Selectman Jane Rich said she thought the department’s biggest problem was a “lack of volunteers, it’s a nationwide problem. The other part of it is that we don’t pay people anything, they’re all volunteers, they get a small stipend, they work out of town, most of them, and they have to do that in order to live,” she said.

Also at issue, she said, were the many “rules and regulations” for today’s firefighters compared to the days when “everybody in town turned out to do something” when there was a fire. “Now today at a fire scene somebody might want to help but they are prevented from doing that,” she said.

Rich also said Chief Tibbetts reassured selectmen this year that three vehicles were available for fire protection.

Tibbetts knows what the tax rate is, she said, and he replaced some gear last year and had a three-year plan to replace it all but decided not to when the town is struggling with the extra school budget, she said.

Andover voted to withdraw from School Administrative District 44 and formed the Andover School Department on July 1, 2015.

“People here are a little disgruntled because they don’t feel they have the coverage they used to have, and that’s true, but I don’t know what you do about it under all the circumstances,” she said.

Should the department be ditched?

Adler said he spoke with some townspeople recently regarding the department problems and some said the town should get rid of the department.

But, Adler argues, “Without a Fire Department some people will lose their (homeowners) insurance. . . When you take what my tax payment is, what percentage of that goes to the Fire Department, it’s a lot less than a $350 hike in my insurance coverage.”

His homeowners insurer, Advantage Insurance Co. in Rumford, and insurance agent Becky Dolloff told him his insurance would go up by $350 a year if the town did not have its own fire protection services and had to rely on departments in Roxbury or Rumford, which are a minimum of 5 or 8 miles away from most Andover properties.

Chief Tibbetts, responding to Adler’s concerns Wednesday, would only say, “Everything (Adler) is worried about is being worked on in-house at this time.”

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Andover firefighter Jim Adler stands in front of Engine 43, which he says has been out of service for more than a year. He said the department lacks volunteer firefighters and has one fire engine and one rescue vehicle available for emergencies 

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