Poquonnock Bridge, largest fire district in Groton, lays off 9 firefighters

Groton - The Poquonnock Bridge Fire District board on Thursday laid off nine firefighters - 36 percent of the department - and Chief Todd Paige said the department would need help from other districts to handle basic calls.

Firefighters said the change, which the board of directors didn't vote on but authorized by consent, would increase emergency response time, because they'd have to wait for mutual aid or endanger their safety.

"If my house burns or my husband gets hurt on the job because of the irresponsibility of this board, I will spend every dime I have suing each of them individually," said Cindy Baril, the wife of a firefighter.

Poquonnock Bridge is Groton's largest fire district, with 12,000 residents, the business strip along Route 1 and the largest amount of town-owned property, including the Town Hall, Groton Town police station, Groton Public Library, Groton senior center and the high school.

Taxpayers last month approved a budget of $3.9 million for the fiscal year that begins July 1 - $700,000 less than the district had this fiscal year.

Board member Ron Yuhas told the audience of about 18 the board had no choice. Firefighters stood within several feet of board members as the layoff plan was announced during a meeting in a senior center classroom.

"It's not something we want to do. But we've got 3.9 (million dollars)," Yuhas said. "That's where we're at."

Poquonnock Bridge currently has 25 firefighters responding to calls, nine of whom will receive layoff notices today, giving them 30 days' notice.

With 16 firefighters left, the department would be able to staff four firefighters per shift, though as a practical matter it would often have fewer due to illness and vacations.

Paige, the fire chief, said the impact is actually greater than nine layoffs because the district also has four vacancies: the deputy chief, fire marshal and two firefighters, none of whom will be replaced. This brings the total positions eliminated to 13.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has what's called a two-in/two-out rule, which means a firefighter must not enter a burning building alone and must keep in contact with two firefighters outside in case something goes wrong. There's an exception if immediate action could save a life.

But firefighters said the situation endangers people.

"With three people on a shift, that leaves no one to go inside to rescue somebody," said Bryan Quilter, a Poquonnock Bridge firefighter for more than 10 years. "We have to wait for mutual aid to get there, and that could be 10 minutes plus."

Fire Chief Todd Paige told the board running the department with "only three firefighters on duty prevents firefighters from attacking a fire inside a burning building until additional help arrives," due to federal safety rules.

The union contract requires a minimum of five firefighters per shift, so the decision Thursday would violate the contract. Union President Kale Kiely declined comment after the meeting.

The layoffs must be done by seniority under the contract and will include Jeffrey Erhart, who has been with the department for more than five years and was named Groton Firefighter of the Year by the Elks Club.

Erhart was one of two technicians who inspected about 400 car seats to see that they were installed properly, which is why he received the honor. He also helped run a public education program that taught fire safety at nine day care centers, three elementary schools and the senior center.

Erhart said he believed the cuts were due to a personal grudge against the department. "I don't know what fueled it or why," he said.

The layoffs will affect firefighters with three, four, five, six and eight years' experience.

John Stanford, a firefighter for 18 years, said he also believed the layoffs were an effort to sabotage the department. Union members have been in a bitter feud with district board President Alan Ackley, and the district and union are in the middle of a legal fight over a 10-year union contract.

"He's putting the safety of the taxpayers and the firefighters at risk," Stanford said.

Quilter, who videotapes the meetings, kept the camera going after the meeting ended. At one point, he asked a man who supported the board how much he saved in taxes.

"I didn't want to pay triple," the man said. "I didn't want to pay triple!" Then Quilter asked the man where he lived in Poquonnock Bridge, and the man replied, "Get out of my face!" and shoved the camera at him.

Quilter said he believes people have no idea which fire district covers them.

"It's a disgrace," he said. "What's going to happen is the other departments are going to be left to pick up the pieces, and they're not going to be happy about it."

d.straszheim@theday.com

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