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PSNH work center in Hillsboro to close

Local emergency personnel are worried their response time to some fires and motor vehicle accidents might increase when a Public Service of New Hampshire work center in Hillsboro closes this spring.

The 15 employees at that work center service Hillsboro and its surrounding towns, conducting day-to-day electrical work and responding to emergencies in that area. When the facility closes April 1, PSNH spokesman Martin Murray said none of those employees will be laid off.

Murray anticipated all of the people and equipment from Hillsboro would be moved to work centers in nearby Bedford, Keene or Newport, but those plans have not yet been finalized. The Hillsboro work center primarily serves Warner, Hopkinton, Henniker, Windsor, Antrim, Deering, Bennington and Fracestown.

But when PSNH relocates those employees, Henniker First Deputy Chief Steve Burritt said his and other departments will have to wait longer for PSNH to address downed power lines or damaged utility poles that might be blocking them from a call.

Public service employees from the work center would cut off power to a burning home before firefighters enter the building, or a department would call them to the scene of an accident where a vehicle has hit a utility pole.

“Just do the math,” Burritt said. “The travel time from Hillsboro to Henniker versus the travel time from Newport to Henniker is significantly longer.”

And when a downed power line has fallen on top of a car, for example, Burritt said fire and rescue personnel need PSNH’s help as soon as possible.

“If you’re the person who’s in the vehicle, who is unconscious and needs medical attention, that’s a problem,” Burritt said.

Just last week, Hillsboro fire Chief Kenneth Stafford said he called PSNH because downed power lines blocked a Hillsboro fire truck’s path to a possible house fire. Help arrived in about 15 minutes, he said.

“If I have to wait for a truck to come from Newport or Keene or Bedford, then you’re talking extra time,” Stafford said.

Stafford and Burritt, along with other fire officials from Bennington and Henniker, brought their concerns to a Hillsboro select board meeting Monday. At that meeting, Murray said he and other PSNH representatives tried to reassure officials they could still respond promptly to “local and immediate emergencies.”

“There is not a real concern about significant events, hypothetically a big ice storm or a big snowstorm when there’s a lot of (PSNH trucks) out,” Murray said. “That’s basically a battle or a war that is waged statewide, and we are very good at that.”

But the company will need to consider these concerns from fire and rescue personnel as it maps out where employees and equipment will move from Hillsboro in the spring, Murray said.

“That’s our challenge, to be able to continue to provide very speedy service,” Murray said. “We anticipate that our average travel time will be 30 minutes to any location within that area.”

Stafford estimated a public service truck from the current work center could be on the scene of an emergency in Hillsboro in 15 to 20 minutes; Burritt estimated it could arrive in Henniker from the center in 20 to 25 minutes.

Burritt called PSNH responders “an integral part of our team,” saying the department has a good relationship with the utility workers.

“I’m a public service ratepayer,” Burritt said. “I appreciate that they’re trying to cut down any costs that they can, but there needs to be a balance.”

The Hillsboro building is the only PSNH work center closing out of about a dozen in New Hampshire, Murray said.

“This is not the first time in our history we’ve consolidated work facilities,” Murray said. “People might remember historically, PSNH had work centers in Franklin, Pittsfield and Gilford. They were consolidated some time ago, about 10 years ago (into) a new facility in Tilton. That arrangement has worked out very well.”

Murray said he was confident PSNH could still be able to respond to area emergencies promptly even when the Hillsboro work center is closed. Trucks performing regular maintenance in the area during the day will be available for emergency calls, he said, and some employees take their trucks home on nights and weekends to be ready in an emergency.

“That’s really our task to continue to provide excellent service day to day,” Murray said.

Stafford, however, was more skeptical about the move and its affect on his department.

“The town of Hillsboro pays me money to be worried about that,” he said. “I’m always gong to be leery. . . . I don’t gamble with people’s safety.”

(Megan Doyle can be reached at 369-3321 or mdoyle@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @megan_e_doyle.)

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