A spate of recent fires was not enough to convince New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell that Engine 8 should remain in service. Two deaths from a general alarm blaze early Monday morning that badly damaged a pair of properties on Acushnet Avenue in the near North End apparently did the trick.

When it was learned that two people had perished and 40 others displaced by the raging inferno, a sea of outrage engulfed the Mitchell Administration over its reductions in the public safety sector, particularly the fire department. Firefighters, city councilors, and citizens alike have called on Mitchell to reverse the course since announcing last July that Engine 8 would be mothballed. Mitchell wouldn't budge.

Since July, Mitchell has sought to blame the firefighters union for stoking fears about decommissioning Engine 8. Mitchell denied that response times would be affected by the loss of the engine.

When firefighters from some of the surrounding towns accused Mitchell of becoming too dependent on mutual aid while closing Station 11 and not filling vacant positions, he said they were shilling for the local firefighters' union which is in contract negotiations with his administration.

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Mitchell turned a deaf ear to those who warned that the department had become too thin. But on Monday, even Acting Fire Chief Scott Kruger admitted that he just didn't have enough manpower to battle the fire that resulted in a pair of deaths.

Mitchell, up against a wall now, says he will keep Engine 8 in service through the remainder of the fiscal year and will attempt to keep it operational beyond that.

"While a reduction in operating expenses will be necessary to achieve this goal, my preference is to do so without taking Engine 8 offline, even beyond this fiscal year," he said.

But even in conceding that his plan to shelve Engine 8 might not have been the best idea, Mitchell felt the need to shift some of the blame for it to the COVID pandemic.

"The economic effect of the pandemic, of course, has caused considerable strain on the city's finances, which prompted reductions in services across city government, including the Fire Department," he said.

Mitchell is late to the game in realizing the value of keeping Engine 8 in service. His decision seems forced and driven by politics rather than a belief that his judgment might have been flawed. But that's par for the course.

Barry Richard is the host of The Barry Richard Show on 1420 WBSM New Bedford. He can be heard weekdays from noon to 3 p.m. Contact him at barry@wbsm.com and follow him on Twitter @BarryJRichard58. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

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