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Stonington - Four separate fire companies working out of the Stonington Borough Fire Department headquarters united on Tuesday in a merger that has created the Stonington Borough Volunteer Fire Company Inc.
The culmination of the merger was a badge-pinning ceremony for newly elected officers held outside department headquarters. The new captain and two lieutenants replace an array of officers separately elected by the Steamers Engine Company, Neptune Engine Company, Pioneer Hook and Ladder Company, and the Stonington Borough Fire Police.
Though not without controversy because of the history involved with each company, membership from all four entities voted overwhelmingly in favor of the merger.
"This was an extremely difficult but necessary move," said borough Fire Chief Jeff Hoadley. "They were their own mini-corporations with captains and lieutenants and foremen, formed at different times by different groups."
There were as many line officers as members under the old system - "a lot of chiefs and not a lot of Indians," Hoadley said.
Hoadley said the move, two years in the making, will improve department communications and fire ground operations and provide a defined chain of command and one treasury. They all now work under a single set of bylaws.
Theresa Hersh, named captain of the new department, said it was a progressive move on the part of the borough and should improve efficiency. Hersh said each of the companies used to have their own meetings and hold their own fundraisers.
"Now we are all together focusing on the same cause: one brotherhood," she said.
Hersh along with 1st Lt. Everett Ponte and 2nd Lt. Michael Ruffin were elected through a competitive interview process that included evaluation from a panel that included two outside fire chiefs, from the City of Groton and Richmond, R.I., fire departments. Previously, officers were nominated and elected by the membership.
"That was another big shake-up," Hoadley said. "We wanted the most qualified people instead of maybe the most popular."
The fire companies, with about 20 active members combined, had already worked together out of the same station, and Hoadley said the general public would not necessarily be aware of any change. Each of the companies trace their roots to the borough's history as a blue-collar working area, something that has dramatically changed through the years and also led to a dwindling number of volunteers, Hoadley said.
But change can be tough when you're dealing with fiercely independent organizations steeped in tradition as storied as the state's oldest borough. Hoadley said there were longtime members opposed to the idea, mostly because they have always identified with one company over another.
"When you joined, you joined one of those companies. That's who you identified with. For some, it's difficult to let go of that history," Hoadley said.
Borough firefighter Patrick Cassidy was, until the merger, a first assistant foreman with the Pioneer Hook & Ladder Company. He gave up his rank under the new merger, but said the change is for the best.
"I personally did not mind," Cassidy said. "I think this is a step in the right direction of where the department should be headed. We've always worked as a team."
Capt. Theresa Hersh
1st Lt. Everett Ponte
2nd Lt. Michael Ruffin
Fire Police Capt. John Delmhorst
Treasurer Andy Bellinghieri
Secretary Julia Stoner
Steward Dessi McEntee
Engineer Robert Hersh