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New London - The city's fire department responded to the most calls in its history during 2012, according to department statistics.
The busiest year was coupled with the department's most trying, fire union president Rocco Basilica said, as 25 firefighters spent the summer with the looming threat of layoffs overhead.
The nearly 7,000 calls last year were up from the 6,658 New London Fire Department responses in 2011, said fire inspector Bridget Yuknat, and accounted for the most in the department's history.
"Through all that the guys never wavered and continued to do their job," Basilica said of the threatened firefighters, who were the least senior in the department. "Even during OpSail, these guys had their pink slips and showed up for work. It was an emotional summer."
Yuknat said ambulance calls accounted for almost 5,700 responses while about 1,300 responses were to fires. Most of the fire calls stemmed from cooking fires, Yuknat said, "and that is the same every year," she added.
Five of the fires were deemed arson, Yuknat said, including one house fire in April that was set to cover the murders of two occupants. Joel Matthews is in police custody in connection with the April 13 fire at 36 Blinman St., which police say Matthews set to cover the murders of Noel Starback, 57, and Sherry Roush, 50.
Basilica said someone banged on the door of the Bank Street fire headquarters, just down the street from the fire, to alert the firefighters. Roush was dead on arrival but Basilica said Starback was pulled from the burning building and sent to the hospital as firefighters worked to put out the blaze. Starback later died of his injuries.
"The Blinman Street fire was a significant incident," Basilica said. "It was an intense fire, and we removed somebody from that building. Those are always tense moments, and it's something you don't think about, you just do it in the moment."
One person, Isabelle Roth, died during 2012 in an accidental fire. The February fire at 18 Holly Terrace started from smoking materials, fire inspector Vernon Skau said.
In 2011, Yuknat said no one died in a fire and in 2010, one person died in an accidental fire.
During storm Sandy, the department responded to more than 120 calls. The city's Emergency Operations Center operated out of the fire department's Bank Street headquarters during the storm and Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio said he saw firsthand the work of the firefighters.
"The department did a fantastic job during the storm," he said. "They had to help evacuate people where roofs were compromised. They were getting inundated with calls and handled it all with tremendous professionalism and made the city proud."
The department averaged 19 calls per day and responded to 204 car crashes throughout the year, Yuknat said. Twenty times during 2012 the department provided aid for departments outside the city and 106 times the New London department received "mutual aid," she said.
As part of a free service, the fire marshal's office installed 125 carbon monoxide alarms and more than 500 smoke detectors. Skau said the department still has smoke detectors and will provide and install the devices for wanting residents.
Yuknat said the office also performed 922 build inspections, 424 inspections of new construction and investigated a total of 34 fires. Skau said the fire marshal's office investigates "larger scale fires" while the cause and origin of more minor blazes are investigated by the fire department battalion chiefs, also certified fire marshals.
"Those two to three stove fires a week, they're not necessary to call in a fire inspector when an on-duty battalion chief can investigate that," said Skau.
Aside from the layoffs, which were eventually canceled after the department and the city negotiated a revised contract, Basilica said there were other changes. Henry Kydd was promoted from Battalion Chief to Deputy Chief in March, the first time the department has filled the position since 2004. Promotions to fill the Battalion Chief vacancy and other retirements have been tested for and are expected in the next few weeks, Basilica said.
The biggest change will be when Chief Ronald Samul officially steps down April 1. Chief for 25 years, Samul has been out on accrued leave since mid-October and the chief's duties have been handled by Kydd. A replacement has not been named, but many close to the department believe Kydd, a more than 30-year veteran of the department, will take the reins.