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Mutual aid a concern for region's fire departments

By Deborah Straszheim

Publication: The Day

Published June 28. 2014 4:00AM   Updated June 28. 2014 11:22PM
Chiefs say Poquonnock Bridge layoffs pose threat to effective assistance among local districts

Groton - Chiefs in fire districts surrounding Poquonnock Bridge say layoffs in that department would strain other departments and could affect neighboring towns, because fire departments rely on one another for backup and may have to call in help from farther away.

"If we're in Poquonnock Bridge with our ladder truck for mutual aid, then we're going to be calling in Mystic's ladder truck to cover us," said Kenneth Richards Jr., longtime chief of the Old Mystic Fire Department. "And if Mystic's ladder truck is busy, then we're going to be calling Stonington borough or the sub base. The circle just keeps getting bigger."

Center Groton Chief Derek Fauntleroy, who has known Poquonnock Bridge firefighters for 20 years, said, "How can you downsize your department, expect the same services when you get (2,000) calls per year, and now you don't have the manpower to substantiate that? So now you put stresses on every department in the area to fulfill that obligation."

Poquonnock Bridge has "mutual aid" agreements with several fire departments in which the districts agree, either informally or in writing, to back one another up. The agreements, outlined generally in state law, basically provide that departments help each other when available, waive liability claims against one another and grant each other authority under certain circumstances.

Typically, mutual aid agreements kick in during multiple emergencies or during a working fire, when a department's firefighters are overtaxed. In Groton, the dispatch center has a listing of which department should be called first for help, depending on where the fire is.

Poquonnock Bridge, even with five to seven firefighters on duty, as has been the case in the past year, would need mutual-aid firefighters to put out a building fire. They need extra help to attack a fire inside and out, give firefighters rest, and have extra hands on in case something goes wrong. Due to cuts, the number of firefighters on duty at Poquonnock Bridge will drop to a minimum of three per shift next month.

On June 19, the fire district's board of directors agreed to lay off nine firefighters, more than one-third of its staff, and give them a 30-day notice. The official layoff date and time is 8 a.m. July 25.

The department also has four vacancies that would remain unfilled, raising the staff cuts to 13, or close to 42 percent of the department.

Strain on the system

Poquonnock Bridge is the largest fire district in Groton, covering an area with 12,000 people, the business strip on Route 1 and most town-owned property. The district board said it had no option because it couldn't pay the salaries and benefits of the current contingent of firefighters. Taxpayers approved a budget of $3.9 million for the coming fiscal year, $700,000 lower than the current budget. The board wants to start a volunteer force, but until that's running mutual aid would still be needed.

Groton City is already looking for help elsewhere in case Poquonnock Bridge can't honor its end of the mutual aid agreement, the city fire chief said. The chief of the Mystic Fire District said that department would continue to provide aid, but would not go to every call in Poquonnock Bridge. The Center Groton fire chief said his department would also provide aid but has had its own issues finding volunteers to respond during the day.

"We have an excellent mutual aid system in Groton. It's second to none," Richards, of Old Mystic, said. "But if nine firefighters get laid off, it's going to severely tax our system." He said it could reach into surrounding towns like Stonington, Gales Ferry and Ledyard because those communities may be called in to cover departments that are covering Poquonnock Bridge.

Richards expects mutual aid calls to double if the layoffs occur. Old Mystic shares a border with Poquonnock Bridge along Flanders Road.

Groton City Fire Chief Nick DeLia said he doesn't know yet whether Poquonnock Bridge will be able to help anyone else. "The first question is, are they going to be able to come out and leave their district to assist other folks?" he said. "I think that's a huge question, and I don't think that's been answered yet. When we have a working fire, they come automatically. And if they're not going to be able to do that, that's an issue."

The Poquonnock Bridge Fire District Board has not yet discussed mutual aid after layoffs. It meets next at 7 p.m. July 10 at the Groton Senior Center.

"We have a system to handle the emergencies that is a cooperative venture and we do have a role in assisting our neighbors," Poquonnock Bridge Fire Chief Todd Paige said. "I don't know how we're going to be able to do that."

DeLia, a former career firefighter for Poquonnock Bridge, said his department will provide mutual aid but not automatic aid.

There's a difference: Mutual aid is requested when the emergency occurs, while automatic aid is set up ahead of time. For example, Noank Volunteer Fire Co. No. 1 responds automatically if the fire alarm goes off at Robert E. Fitch High School, because it's close and Poquonnock Bridge wants three engines at the scene because of the size of the school.

DeLia said the city is making arrangements to get mutual aid from another department in case Poquonnock Bridge is unavailable, and that is not ideal. "We're replacing them with a different unit, and then I've got to replace that unit with another unit, so it's a domino effect, and the problem is they're further away, whereas Poquonnock Bridge is right here.

"It's like dropping a stone in the middle of a lake."

Monitoring call volume

Gales Ferry Fire Chief Anthony Saccone said his district provides mutual aid to Poquonnock Bridge and would continue to do so. If Poquonnock Bridge couldn't help Gales Ferry at a given time, dispatchers would move the call forward to the next available department, he said.

Mystic Fire District Chief Frank Hilbert said Poquonnock Bridge hasn't contacted his fire district nor asked for a meeting of area chiefs. He said he thinks it should. "We fully intend to provide mutual aid as we have in the past but we don't intend to provide fire protection for them," he said. "That's their responsibility."

Hilbert said he believes the situation is manageable, however. Mystic has about 40 volunteers and two stations, and responded to Poquonnock Bridge eight or 10 times in the last year, he said.

Center Groton's Fauntleroy said his district would continue to provide mutual aid. The district is so close to Poquonnock Bridge that when the Center Groton firetruck pulls out of the station, it drives into the Poquonnock Bridge district.

Center Groton has about 25 members, all of whom are volunteers, including the chief. Most work during the day, so the department has its own issues finding coverage from 7 a.m. until 5 p.m., Fauntleroy said.

Richards said he plans to monitor call volume and report back to his board. But if it gets unreasonable - or three calls per week become 20 or 40 - the Old Mystic board would probably ask for a meeting with Poquonnock Bridge, he said. If that didn't work, it would go to the Town Council, Richards said.

"When it comes to the point when public safety is jeopardized, there's going to have to come a point where the town or the state, the Office of Policy and Management, is going to have to step in," he said.

d.straszheim@theday.com

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