Saturday, February 7, 2009


It's colder when I get to the parking lot -  stretching out like a vast rolling, black desert before me - then when I left my home only twenty minutes before hand. Out in front the Rockingham Park racetrack, known most famously for it's heyday about forty years prior and as the set of a few gambling movies, sprawls out across the horizon.
Completely out of place in an otherwise very quiet, very 
deserted locale, are a dozen tents flapping in the cold February wind, parked emergency vehicles with an array of antennas and satellite dishes sprouting up from within them, and very serious looking men and women in body armor and military boots. 
It could have come straight out of a movie on the SciFi channel.

Captain William Warnock of the Salem Fire Department assures me that this is all part of a regularly scheduled drill for the regional Hazmat team and this time they're excited to be joined by the New Hampshire National Guard's 12th Civil Support Team - tasked with aiding municipalities handle terrorist threats and natural disasters.

Observing the drill is a team up from Georgia, members of the Army North command. They shiver as the snow begins to fall - we're expected to get between 4 and 8 inches that day - and bundle up. 
One officer, wearing two winter hats stacked on top of each other, keeps staring at me in my jeans and leather jacket out from underneath the hood of a heavy duty parka. 

"Quit pretending it's 80 degrees out," he tells me and then wanders off to shiver some more.

The drill itself - aside from being completely out of the ordinary in the empty parking lot of a racetrack - is rather mundane. Two teams comprised of local firefighters and National Guard personnel ride up to the site of the "attack" in full biohazard suits. 

As patrons walk in and out with curious looks the teams scan the air with a wide range of gear that their commander, Major Erik Fessenden, calls a state-of-the-art mix of military and civilian technology.

In the month of preparatory work leading up the joint exercise the team of observers have set up harmless substances that ought to simulate the readings of a real-world dangerous chemical agent. After getting the perfunctory questions out of the way (What is the scenario? Who is involved? How does this work? How many times annually are these teams tested?) I ask team chief Daniel Robbins if he enjoys doing this. 

"This must be fun, right?" I ask. "To put the shoe on the other foot, to test these guys and go about pretending to be on the other side."

Robbins smiles and laughs for the first time since I started talking to him.

"Sure, it's 30 degrees out, snowing and we're from Atlanta, but if you watch the guys they all have a smile on their face."

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Walking Tall

I spoke to Chief Michael Walker for the first time back in July. The Pelham Fire Department had adopted "red shirt Fridays," a program meant to remember the courage, bravery and dedication of the New York City firefighters who gave their lives on September 11, 2001. 

Cordial, he answered my questions in a plainspoken manner and without ever lifting his voice above the soft just barely audible enough volume I would later learn that he rarely broke out of. Keeping his tone even, Walker had a funny way of emphasizing specific words - a short gasp that proceeded his answer.

"Ohhh yeah," he would say if he agreed with something I had asked him, the 'o' sound hard and the 'h' stretched out. You could always imagine him vigorously nodding his head even during phone interviews.

He spoke with a flat, almost mid-western accent. Having been raised in upstate New York and working in Fort Madison, Iowa it may have been a mixture of both influences.

"I'm more of a mountain boy," he told me once.

Walker almost never failed to call me back for any reason. During the height of the ice storm recovery operation, when you could hear the fact that he had been working 20 hours a day for almost a week in his voice, he politely answered my questions before hanging up to attend an emergency management meeting.

The best contacts you can have will always take your calls, fit you into their schedule for the day and answer your questions candidly. Walker rose to the top of my list after I interviewed him about the death of a fellow firefighter and friend. The man had been on vacation with his family at the time and suffered a massive heart attack.

"He is one of those people that lives that kind of a life such that he's a decent Christian human being. You look at yourself and you wonder, 'I wish that I could be like him,'" Walker said, the words coming with thick, full pauses between them. "I never heard him say a bad word about anybody. He was always upbeat and supportive. He will do anything for you."

I learned that he and Walker had been workout buddies and yet on the morning of hearing the news of his friend and coworker's death, he took the time to talk to me a little bit about what kind of a man he had been.

I ran into Walker off and on for the next six months, covering the department's fire safety outreach program to school children, their budget shortfalls and the equipment and new facility they so desperately needed the taxpayers to give them. Up until he resigned to take a position as chief of the Yarmouth, Mass., fire department a few days ago Walker was one of my best contacts in Pelham. 

I will be sorry to see him go.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Fast times at Windham high

Residents and officials in Windham are happy to be able to put the issue of a secondary access road for their new $55 million high school behind them. 

"It's pretty big relief. I think that my life has been pretty peaceful for the past three days," Dr. Bruce Anderson told me during a conference call with him and Windham's superintendent. "It's a relief that we resolved this without going to court. It put a lot of peoples' minds at ease...the road issue will not get in the way of the school opening."

The brand new state of the art facility ran into trouble this past year after Thomas McPherson, the town's fire chief, told both selectmen and the School Board that he would not sign off on the building unless a second egress was put in place for emergency vehicles. 

Whether this mean a full town road or a gravel path was left up to the boards and the abutters. 

Complicating the issue, members of the School Board and some residents called into question the legal requirement to have the road built. State officials had signed off on the design plans three years earlier and many felt that this was all the approval that they needed to go ahead and open the school next August. 

While the state fire marshall and state education officials ultimately deferred to McPherson's judgement, there was a push to settle the matter in court. 

"What it came down to was the majority of the board felt that spending that money to guarantee that this school would open without further legal battles was worth it," Anderson said. 

The vote - 3 to 2 for spending $500,000 of the district's budget on the construction of a Class V town road connecting the high school to the south side of town - was razor thin and taken during a non-public session.

"Although it is not the way I would have settled this question, the issue should never ever come back to the school district again," said Chairman Barbara Coish - who voted against signing the agreement with selectmen and abutters. During a Tuesday night meeting Coish criticized the agreement, saying that she could not vote for something that would effectively bypass the voters.

Two earlier attempts to appropriate the funds for the secondary road failed to pass, most recently during a special election in September.

After a few months of political maneuvering between the two boards, everything appears to have been settled and the school's opening is no  longer in doubt. Everyone I have spoken to agrees that they've let out a "big sigh of relief."

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Between a rock and a hard place

Superintendent Michael Delahanty sounds a little on edge over the phone as he explains to me for the umpteenth time why Salem ought to have a kindergarten program in place by the start of the new school year.

"The rest of the world except for eleven or twleve towns in New Hampshire have decided kindergarten is beneficial," he says. "What we're really trying to do is present an education for the kids and the tax rate isn't the only story there."

"Right," I say and then go on to play the devil's advocate.

"I believe that the state has told us that we're obligated to have kindergarten to meet the definition of adequate education. If we're obligated to meet that then the money belongs in our budget," Delahanty says finally, drawing a visual of the spot in between the proverbial rock and the hard place the school district has found itself in.

Which is an apt analogy for the problem that Salem and a handful of other towns mostly clustered around southern New Hampshire have found themselves in after the state mandated that those communities without kindergarten get started on putting one together.

In Salem, the financial burden is particularly onerous. While the state will send the town roughly $900,000 in aid, the total cost of implementing the program - hiring teachers, buying materials, etc. - will run up to about $1.6 million. Which leaves the town responsible for the remaining $700,000.

Complicating the issue is a matter of constitutional debate. Under Article 28A of the New Hampshire constitution, the state cannot present towns with an unfunded mandate. Some residents are now calling redefining the state definition of an adequate education to include kindergarten an "unfunded mandate."

Which is the stand the town's budget committee took last week when the voted 5-4 to strip the funding for the kindergarten program out of the school district's operating budget.

"I think the state has mandated it to us. If it's a mandate they should pay for it. If it's not a mandate then we should have the right to vote on it," said Michael Carney, who cast the deciding vote.

Now the school board has to take up the challenge of either convincing voters to restore the funding during a Feb. 5 deliberative session or make budget cuts in other areas, like eliminating busing for the town's high school students. In another year this would already have been an uphill battle, but against the backdrop of a recession and the loss of Windham students who are moving to a new high school in their own town - taking with them a cool couple million in tuition money - people are not likely to be convinced easily.

"Salem is suffering the way every other town in New Hampshire is and every other city in the country is," said Stephen Campbell, another member of the budget committee and vocal supporter of nearby Hudson's lawsuit against the state mandate. "You just have to look at the houses for sale, the empty businesses up and down Route 28. It's hard to imagine the School Board could ask for so much that the taxes would raise over 10 percent."

Friday, January 9, 2009

Into the fire

Atkinson firefighters battle a fire that enveloped a Stage Road barn and significantly damaged the adjacent home Thursday night. Crews from nearby Hampstead, Plaistow and Danville were called in to help. Capt. Rockwell said his team was able to keep the fire contained while they waited for assistance. The fire began sometime around 4 p.m.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Six months on the job; a retrospectus

After half a year spent covering the southern portion of New Hampshire I've received quite a bit of experience and learned plenty of lessons about real world journalism. Six months ago, being a wet-behind the ears recent graduate of the University of Massachusetts with one internship under my belt I made a lot of pretty obvious mistakes. 

Looking back, there are a lot of things I would change if I had the chance. But since no one has invented the time machine yet and every misstep is a learning experience, I figured it would be more beneficial if I just posted them here. At the very least, I'll have a set of guidelines for starting out in an unfamiliar world saved somewhere for wherever my career takes me next.

1) Meet everybody that has anything to do with your beat. 

I think this applies universally, no matter what your beat actually includes. Coming to Salem I only met the local fire and police chiefs, the town manager and a couple of librarians. Retrospectively, I should have gone out of my way to introduce myself to all of the selectmen, school board members, education officials, town department heads, local citizens groups and anyone else I could think of. As a result of not doing that, I still have trouble getting in touch with important individuals when I need to. Nothing like leaving messages at three different places while sweating under a deadline and wishing you had a selectman's cell phone number.

2) Never generalize.

Which I also learned to my detriment after I told a police chief that Pelham seemed to be a "quiet little town." 

"Let me give you some advice," he said, cutting me off. "Get to know a town before you say things like that. Maybe you ought to spend some more time in Pelham."

Since then, I've learned that Pelham has a darker side, mostly dealing with drugs coming up across the Massachusetts border. People don't like it when you pigeon-hole their community, profession or opinions. 

3) The devil's in the details.

Specifics make or break a story and while it can seem easier to gloss over information you don't have when you're writing on deadline, it's important to remember that the more specific you get the better the article comes out. Making a habit of asking a specific set of biographical questions when I interview people (age, profession, home, etc.) has definitely made my descriptions of interviewees better. Even when doing those man-on-the-street interviews a good journalist covers all the usual bases.

4) Don't burn bridges...

...Unless you have to. Writing an "investigative-type" piece on something that doesn't deserve the scrutiny will blow up in your lap. As will overly dramatizing a piece of news that is straight forward. Sure, it might make for a better read, but if you annoy your contacts to the point where they won't speak with you anymore you're pretty much screwed. I haven't fallen into that problem yet, but I can see where it would come up. One such incident involved an local crime piece that the home office covered by a staff writer. A day later I got called up by the local press liaison at the police station wanting to know if I could pass along a message to the staffer that basically read "off the record means off the record." It was a little awkward after that.

5) Secretaries are key...

...To getting hold of anybody important. Get in good with the secretaries and you're set. Otherwise, there's always that chance that they might lose that message you left. Or stonewall you with "he's in an important meeting" every time you call.

6) Features will put you in like Flynn.

One of best contacts is just that because I wrote a feature on his son's return from Afghanistan. Was it hard news? Was it an investigative piece of work? Did it involve a lot of leg work? No, but it did help me ingratiate myself with a couple key members of town hall. Now they're always willing to help me with a story. Soft news stories can lead to good contacts with a high level of respect for you.

7) Play fair.

People will respect you if you record their opinions and adequately explain their positions on key issues. When the time comes that you have to play hardball or grill someone with a couple of tough questions, they're more likely to be on board.

8) Follow up.

I can't list how many times I've missed a good story because I failed to follow up. Though it is tougher to remember everything that's going on when you're responsible for four different towns, a little organization goes a long way. Sticking a "save the date" note on my calendar for various arraignment dates and important meetings would have helped a lot, especially in the beginning.

9) Speaking of meetings...

...They're all important. Every single one. Even that budget committee meeting that goes until midnight. Government meetings are always a source for stories, whether you're looking for a feature on some prominent local benefactor, a story on an interesting project organized by a citizens group, school issues or small town political spats. I leave every meeting with a list of things I can look into throughout the next week. 

10) Become embedded in the community.

People are a lot more apt to trust you if they recognize you, respect you and realize that you understand the issues completely. This might seem like a combination of some of the earlier lessons (meet everybody, features, play fair), but being recognized as a member of the community first and a reporter second has helped me in the past. During December's ice storm, Windham's fire chief let me use his fire station as a base of operations. I sat in on emergency meetings, hung out with firefighters, charged up my equipment and even dictated stories from their emergency operations center. Knowing that I was a Windham resident myself, and without power, people ended up treating me like a fellow human rather than a reporter (the two can get confused at times). 

There will always be more lessons to come and I look forward to each of them individually as I continue to grow and learn as a reporter. They don't call cub reporters "cub reporters" without reason. While it doesn't take a lot of sophisticated training to become a reporter, a good reporter rolls with the punches. At least, that's how I'm interpreting it.