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Groton - Poquonnock Bridge Fire Chief Todd Paige said Tuesday that he cannot run the department on a $3.5 million budget, that the budget would "decimate public safety," and that closing the Fort Hill Station would increase response times by 3 to 4 minutes.
Paige, who has been chief for 12 years, said the fire district board has not met with him since May 9 and he's still waiting for guidance. He said he looked at potential cuts and found that even if he laid off firefighters, the department would not save money because he'd have to pay others overtime to meet minimum staffing requirements.
"It would totally decimate public safety," he said. "You cannot operate the department at $3.5 million and observe public safety and honor your legal obligations."
Legal obligations include not only the union contract, but items such as liability insurance, fees for fire hydrants and electricity to run the station, Paige said.
"It's up to (board members) which obligation they're going to violate," he said.
Voters approved the $3.5 million budget for the fiscal year starting July 1 after rejecting a higher amount proposed by the board. The $3.5 million is not enough to cover payroll. Taxpayers also elected three new members.
Incoming board president Alan Ackley said last week that one option would be to close the 13 Fort Hill Road station, relocate career firefighters to the second station on Long Hill Road and start a new volunteer company. These changes would require majority approval of the board.
Councilor Harry Watson said he believes the Town Council should discuss the issue.
Watson said the Fort Hill station is "right around the corner" from a neighborhood with hundreds of wood-frame houses and is the closer of the two fire stations to town-owned property including Town Hall, the Town Hall Annex, the Human Services Department, the Groton Town police station, Groton Public Library, Groton Senior Center and Robert E. Fitch High School.
"We need to talk about it as a council, because if there is any risk of our citizens not being safely taken care of, that's our responsibility as a council," Watson said. Poquonnock Bridge is the largest of Groton's nine fire districts and covers 12 square miles.
Larry Nelson, vice president of the Poquonnock Bridge Neighborhood Association, said the area needs its neighborhood station.
"If your house is burning or you're dying of a heart attack, 2 miles is a long way," he said.
District board member Ron Yuhas, who lives on South Road and would be affected by closing Fort Hill, said shuttering the station would affect response times. But he said district taxpayers won't support spending more, so the board has to act.
"I understand that there are people, some that are scared, and some that have legitimate concerns," he said. "And some are scared for no reason. But you can only do so much with so much money."
Yuhas said it also doesn't make sense that other departments manage with less money and still maintain public safety, yet it can't be done in Poquonnock Bridge.
"How is the rest of the town running on half of what we're running on?" Yuhas said. "It's not a fair financial situation right now for us to be paying four times more than Mystic."
The new board will make decisions when it meets after July 1, Yuhas said.
Paige said closing the Fort Hill station would save $40,000, not including the cost of relocating the fire marshal's office and storing vehicles and equipment. He said it would increase response time by 3 to 4 minutes, depending on the location of the call.
For example, responding to Claude Chester Elementary School from the Long Hill Station would take 3 to 4 minutes of travel time plus 2 minutes to dispatch the call and get trucks and equipment out of the station, for a total of 5 to 6 minutes. The response to Fitch High School would take 8 to 9 minutes from the Long Hill Station, Paige said.
The average response time in Poquonnock Bridge is about 4.25 minutes, Paige said.
Editor's note: This corrects an earlier version of this paragraph. The chief also said staffing is driven not only by the union contract but by what the department needs in practice. Under the union contract, the department must be staffed with a minimum of five firefighters per shift, and the department assigns three to Long Hill and two to Fort Hill, Paige said. Minimum staffing has been in place for at least 15 years, he said.
But in practice, staffing levels tend to be higher than what is specified in the contract: A majority of the time, there are at least six firefighters on duty between the two stations.
One reason is that there must be four firefighters at a scene before any may enter a building, under Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations.
The rule, called "two in, two out," means firefighters must enter a building with a buddy, and have at least two outside to help if something goes wrong. The exception is if there's someone known to be trapped inside.
Paige said firefighters may enter a burning structure to save a life under this exception, but to cut staff to that level as policy "would put firefighters at great risk" and would be "irresponsible."
Paige said Poquonnock Bridge differs from other districts in that most of its fires occur in multi-family and commercial buildings. He said these are complicated because smoke and fire may spread to areas with people still inside, such as in an apartment complex with many units.
Libby Gernhard, who lives on Midway Oval and served on the Neighborhood Revitalization Zone in Poquonnock Bridge, said she'd like to see the Fort Hill station stay open. But, she said, she understands it might not be possible.
Her husband, Jack Gernhard, who attended the fire district's annual meeting, said he believes the problem is the union contract. He said the district board needs to get out of it, even if that means asking the governor for permission to declare bankruptcy.
Libby Gernhard said she would support the board if it closed the station near her.
"If we have to do it, we have to do it," she said. "And I'd have to go along with it. Because you can't have everything you want."