Groton can't settle for inadequate fire protection

Cutting staffing in the Poquonnock Bridge Fire District is not a solution to the fiscal problems confronting the district; it is an invitation to tragedy. Meanwhile, the Groton Town Council, based on legal advice, appears ready to walk away from any responsibility for addressing this dangerous mess.

Town Attorney Eileen Duggan told the council last week that it has no legal responsibility for assuring that residents are receiving adequate fire protection. And, legally speaking, it is not up to the town to prevent firefighters from being placed in situations that make their already dangerous jobs more perilous, concluded Ms. Duggan.

Legally, it is the fire district's problem, the council was told.

Just because there may be no legal obligation (and that is debatable), it does not mean there is no moral imperative. If someone dies because of this situation, if property is lost that adequate staffing could have saved, lawyerly excuses will not satisfy the public.

Among the most basic duties of government is providing for public safety. For homes and businesses in the Poquonnock Bridge district, Groton government is not meeting that responsibility.

Groton, which may have more layers of government than any other municipality in the world, has nine different fire districts to protect a population of just fewer than 40,000. Poquonnock Bridge is the largest, covering an area with 12,000 people, the commercial strip on Route 1, and 56.2 percent of town-owned property, according to Town Assessor Mary Gardner.

District taxpayers have rebelled against this burden, cutting the budget to $3.9 million, inadequate to meet the needs, but still carrying a 5.9-mill fire tax, by far the highest among fire districts in the town.

Groton needs fundamental change in how it provides and pays for fire protection, but no one, it appears, wants to go there.

So Poquonnock Bridge, which had two fire stations, now operates one. With the layoff of nine firefighters Friday and unfilled vacancies, staffing has been cut 42 percent. On some shifts, only three firefighters will be on duty. That is not enough to meet the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's two-in/two-out rule - meaning no firefighter should enter a burning building alone and at least two firefighters should be in contact with them outside.

These three-person shifts will respond with only one engine. The department no longer has a ladder truck and cannot reach above the second floor.

The situation is unacceptable.

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