New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell said the city will soon apply for a federal SAFER grant to help the New Bedford Fire Department “transition from a rough period financially for the city.”

Mitchell also told WBSM host Barry Richard on Wednesday that local fire union officials have been overstating the city’s reliance on mutual aid from surrounding communities during major structure fires in New Bedford.

“It’s the kind of thing you hear from the fire unions. It’s one big union, they're pressing their case for not doing as much coverage as they'd like,” said Mitchell, who cited statistics from the New Bedford Fire Department that he said show mutual aid calls having decreased in recent years.

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Mitchell said New Bedford had seven calls for mutual aid in 2018. In 2019, that number decreased to five, and fell again in 2020 to four calls.

“The numbers don’t bear out what they’re saying,” Mitchell said.

However, barely two months into 2021, the city has already made “three or four” calls for mutual aid, said Mitchell, who attributed a recent spate of fires throughout the city to the cold winter weather.

Earlier on Wednesday, Fairhaven firefighter Ed Freitas told WBSM host Chris McCarthy that New Bedford has increasingly been relying on firefighters from Fairhaven and other surrounding communities.

“The more cuts that they make in New Bedford, the more firefighters and apparatus that they keep cutting loose, the responsibility now falls on the surrounding communities,” Freitas said. “And the surrounding communities, we're small departments with limited budgets. We can only go back to the well so many times until we run out of money ourselves.”

Freitas said the practice of sending firefighters to a neighboring community to cover stations during major fires is “not really mutual,” telling McCarthy that New Bedford fire crews have only gone to Acushnet once in 28 years and that Fairhaven usually calls Mattapoisett and Acushnet to cover its fire stations during emergencies.

“It’s not really mutual aid,” Freitas said. “It’s more of a supplement in New Bedford’s budget.”

Fall River firefighter Jason Burns, a former union president, also told McCarthy that mutual aid is meant for extraordinary circumstances.

“It’s not supposed to be routine,” said Burns, who warned that New Bedford is placing its fire safety at risk.

"You either pay to have the service, or you pay because you don't have the service,” Burns said.

However, Mitchell said the New Bedford Fire Department’s own statistics don’t bear out the fire union officials’ claims.

“The union will make assertions, but I would just ask everybody before they would accept those options, to say, ‘Show me the numbers. Show me exactly what's happening,’” Mitchell said, adding that mutual aid is “a two-way street.”

“If there was a really big fire in one of our suburbs, you can bet that the New Bedford Fire Department would be there,” Mitchell said.

The mayor added that city residents “are not going to see a diminution of service” whenever his administration takes Engine 8 offline and replaces it with a “quint” firefighting apparatus that serves as an engine and ladder truck.

Mitchell said the city is preparing its SAFER grant application, which is due March 12. The mayor previously expressed doubt about the city’s prospects of getting the grant since New Bedford has been awarded three other SAFER grants over the last 10 years.

At-large City Councilor Bryan Gomes, the chairman of the council’s public safety committee, however, has filed a motion, which he plans to present at tonight’s city council meeting, calling on the administration not to close Engine 8 or the downtown police station.

“I still have great concerns about closing Engine 8,” Gomes said, “And I will do everything in my power to convince the administration, along with my colleagues, that Engine 8 has to remain open. There's no ifs, ands or buts about it. It has to remain open.”

LISTEN: Firefighters Ed Freitas of Fairhaven and Jason Burns of Fall River with Chris McCarthy:

LISTEN: New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell with Barry Richard:

LISTEN: City Council Committee on Public Safety Chair Brian Gomes with Barry Richard:

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