Groton fire district considering return to volunteers

Groton - The Poquonnock Bridge Fire District Board of Directors is contemplating its most drastic cost-saving move to date with the conversion of its Fort Hill station into a volunteer department.

It was an idea first made public earlier this month by board member Alan Ackley during budget discussions. With a unanimous vote, the board has formed a three-member committee expected to further discuss the idea with Poquonnock Bridge Fire Chief Todd Paige.

Clearly uncomfortable with the idea, Paige answered questions from board members Tuesday about expenses surrounding training, equipment and physicals for volunteers.

Ackley said with a looming fiscal crisis and continued high taxes in the district, the district board could no longer afford not to look at all cost-saving options.

"We're kind of pushed into a corner," Ackley said. "A situation like this is just not sustainable. The only way to get financial control back to this district is to entice those volunteers back."

Ackley said he had been in contact with residents who had expressed an interest in volunteering.

"We had a very active volunteer group here at one time," Ackley said. "All we want to do is let them have their house back, let them be a viable entity, like they are in other districts. Our thought is, if you give them the environment to get together like they had years ago, there's a good chance of that happening."

Board President Chris Clark said it was "way too early" to comment on whether the addition of volunteers would actually result in a cost saving. He said there has been no discussion of layoffs accompanying the proposed move.

The Poquonnock Bridge Fire Department, with a paid staff of 28 union firefighters, presently operates out of two stations, at Fort Hill and Long Hill roads.

Paige said he was caught off guard by the board's proposal.

"We haven't had a volunteer since 2005," Paige said. "To bring back a volunteer department would cost a considerable amount of additional money. I think it's going to be more complicated than just saying we're going to start a volunteer fire department. It would not be a simple task. Nationwide, there is a problem with volunteerism. Groton isn't an exception to that."

While there are several surrounding districts with successful volunteer departments, Paige said many of those have been increasing their paid staff. He said new volunteers also need to be trained and equipped.

"I'm open to hearing what the district has to say," Paige said. "But because it was sprung on me, I haven't had the opportunity to look at the different impacts, such as response time. I'm not saying it can't be done. ... It's just that they were not a viable group for many years."

Board members Ackley, Clark and Peter Legnos plan to meet with Paige at 5 p.m. on April 23 to further discuss the matter. A union representative was not immediately available for comment.

Poquonnock Bridge is the most active fire department in town. Residents, at 5.9 mills, pay the largest tax rate of Groton's nine fire districts.

Paige said the Fort Hill station actually belongs to the former volunteer group but is leased to the district at no cost.

The district's final budget, along with membership of the board, are subject to a vote by Poquonnock Bridge residents at the annual meeting next month.

g.smith@theday.com

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