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Amherst Fire Department grant aimed at arson prevention

To expand the efforts of the Northwestern Juvenile Fire Intervention Response, Education and Safety Partnership, or NoFIRES coalition, the Amherst Fire Department has obtained a $2,100 grant that will be used to purchase a laptop, DVDs and LCD projector so the program can be taken on the road.

The grant award was presented at the central fire station Thursday afternoon.

Firefighter Stephen Gaughan, who supervises the program for Amherst, said the grant will allow the three firefighters trained in dealing with juvenile firesetting to get to places in Amherst, such as apartment complexes and neighborhoods, where they can directly serve youth who need to go through the program.

“This gives the program more flexibility to reach out to larger group of juveniles, if necessary,” Gaughan said.

Gaughan submitted the application to FM Global, a global property insurance company with an office in Norwood.

“It’s a huge benefit,” Gaughan said. “We’re grateful for that. It will help expand the program.”

Amherst, along with Northampton and Greenfield, are the central participants in the NoFIRES partnership, an independent nonprofit organization which serves all 47 communities within the district attorney’s office

Amherst’s portable unit can be taken to several communities on the east side of the Connecticut River.

Fire Chief Walter “Tim” Nelson said it is important to reach children inclined to set fires while they are young. The program is not only about education, but possible clinical referral and addressing the underlying issues that may cause a child to set a fire, Nelson said.

The initiative was launched nearly two years ago, when District Attorney David Sullivan met with community leaders to discuss the lack of educational and treatment services for a few dozen youth who set fires each year in the Northwestern District.

In January, his office applied for a $47,000 seed grant from Gov. Deval Patrick’s Challenge Innovation Grant that supports partnerships and collaborations between agencies and communities.

The program, directed by Floyd Ashlaw, actively began educating children ages 3 to 16 in March, Sullivan said. In the first calendar year, he expects it will reach about 60 children.

Local and state police and fire departments, court personnel and social services agencies, as well as mental healthcare providers, refer children to NoFIRES. Both the children and families receive the appropriate fire safety education program.

Amherst’s ability to take the program to other communities will help. “It’s really going to have an impact with that mobile unit,” Sullivan said.

Town Manager John Musante said the effort is an example of how partnerships are essential to public safety.

The grant comes from FM Global, based in Norwood, which annually gives about 250 similar grants totaling $250,000.

Ray Phillips, vice president and operations manager for the Norwood office, said these grants are to be used solely for arson, but have expanded to all types of fire prevention.

“We are unique in operating under the belief that all losses can be prevented,” Phillips said.

Gaughan said similar initiatives in the past, like a youth firesetting prevention class, have taken place, but NoFIRES is more formal in its firefighter training and assistance from the juvenile offenders division in the district attorney’s office.

Gaughan calls youth firesetting a hidden problem, where six to eight children in Amherst each year need help.

Sullivan said he is planning to expand the NoFIRES program to Holyoke, where the problems of youth setting fires is more prevalent than in Hampshire and Franklin counties, as well as to the Athol and Orange area.

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