Groton fire truck's role reined in by budget woes

Groton - City of Groton officials say they can no longer afford to automatically send the city fire department's ladder truck to emergency calls in Poquonnock Bridge.

City Mayor Marian Galbraith sent notice to the Poquonnock Fire District Board of Directors last month saying use of the ladder "has far exceeded the conditions of mutual aid." The city is looking to recoup operational and capital costs associated with the truck's use.

City of Groton Fire Chief Nicholas DeLia said the relationship remains strong with Poquonnock Bridge, but over the past year and a half, the workload doubled and his ladder was responding to more calls in Poquonnock Bridge than in his own district.

"We can't keep this up. We're getting ready for our budget and tightening our belts," DeLia said.

Poquonnock Bridge Fire Department Chief Todd M. Paige said while there remains a pre-existing mutual aid agreement with the city, the loss of automatic aid and the equipment the ladder truck carries is a public safety issue.

"Firefighting is about risk management," Paige said. "We're here to help minimize risks to the community, and the fire department is assuming a much greater risk by not having the ladder truck immediately available."

While the ladder truck would still be dispatched to the Poquonnock Bridge district based on perceived need, one of the risks in not having an automatic response is a delay in getting a ladder to the scene of a mundane call that turns into a major incident.

Poquonnock Bridge, the town's busiest and only fully paid department with about 30 career firefighters, has gone without use of its own ladder truck since it was taken out of service in October 2011. An inspection of the 1992 Sutphen turned up a rusting frame and other problems.

"We're a busy department, and the truck's just plain worn out," Paige said.

Up until Feb. 28, the district had a verbal agreement with the City of Groton Fire Department for use of the ladder and personnel to man it.

The fire district's board, which has of late focused on cost-cutting measures, has yet to determine whether to repair the truck, replace it or work out a mutual aid agreement. A similar replacement truck costs more than $1 million, and grant applications to help defray costs have yet to yield results.

Fire district board members last month, in just one of several ideas to cut costs, voted unanimously to eliminate all spending on public education programs in the district's schools.

The city had requested $57,000 for reimbursement of current and retroactive costs of its ladder truck.

Fire District Board member Nancy Beckwith said she expects the matter to be discussed at the board meeting Thursday. But money to the city was not something that had been budgeted and therefore would take a public vote to approve.

"We've got a lot on our plate, trying to cut costs while considering public safety," Beckwith said.

Paige said there are four ladder trucks in town, including trucks at the city, Mystic, Old Mystic and Naval Submarine Base fire departments. While he would like a new truck, Paige said a mutual aid agreement is a good option and the city's ladder truck and personnel are the most readily available.

The town relies heavily on mutual aid agreements, and Paige said the reality is the existing manpower at any one of the town's fire departments is not alone sufficient to cover a major event.

Without the ladder truck or a similar replacement, Paige said there is a possibility of a downgrade in the area's Insurance Service Office rating, an indicator insurance companies use to determine fire protection.

With 5.9 mills added to the town's tax rate, Poquonnock Bridge remains the most heavily taxed of the nine fire districts in town.

Galbraith said she remains open to future discussions with the fire district about the sharing of services.

g.smith@theday.com

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