Intervention sought in Poquonnock Bridge Fire District's pending layoffs

Groton - The lack of sufficient emergency response that will occur after the Poquonnock Bridge Fire District lays off nine firefighters "borders on the criminal," and the town or state needs to step in, the president of the Old Mystic Fire District board of directors has written to the Groton Town Council.

Old Mystic Fire District President Carl A. Strand Jr. wrote in a July 10 letter to Town Mayor Rita Schmidt and Councilor Harry Watson that it would be "ridiculous" to think mutual aid could cover Poquonnock Bridge. A copy of the letter was forwarded to all members of the council.

"In our opinion, the Town of Groton or the State of Connecticut needs to step in," Strand wrote. "We know that is not a pleasant option, but we don't know what else will bring some sense and responsibility to the situation."

The Town Council is scheduled to discuss Poquonnock Bridge, possibly in closed session, during its Committee of the Whole meeting at 6 p.m. Tuesday.

"We as a council need to talk about it, there's no question," Watson said Friday. "What comes out of that discussion, I don't know."

The nine layoffs are scheduled to take effect at 8 a.m. on July 25. The fire department also has four vacancies that would remain unfilled, raising the staff cuts to 13, or close to 42 percent of the department.

As of Friday, no one had contacted the state Office of Policy and Management for help, said Gian-Carl Casa, OPM undersecretary for legislative affairs.

But even if someone did, OPM could do little, he said.

"We don't have the authority or the personnel to take over the function of the department," Casa said, adding that it can't make a district change a labor agreement.

Public safety is a town issue under state law, he said.

"The towns have responsibility for the health and safety of their citizens," Casa said. "Obviously, it's something we care about, but ultimately the responsibility for something like fire protection is a local responsibility."

Chiefs in fire districts surrounding Poquonnock Bridge have said layoffs would strain their departments and could affect nearby towns because fire departments count on one another for backup.

Old Mystic and Groton City are the major mutual aid responders for Poquonnock Bridge, Strand said.

He said Poquonnock Bridge could need aid for almost every nonmedical call.

"We will burn out our volunteers, wear out our equipment and spend our taxpayers' money so Poquonnock Bridge's taxpayers can pay less," he wrote.

Old Mystic responds 10 times to Poquonnock Bridge for every one time the reverse occurs, Strand wrote. He also disputed that Poquonnock Bridge is the largest fire district in Groton, saying Old Mystic covers a portion of Stonington that can't be ignored, for a total of 17,000 people and 26 square miles.

Groton Town Finance Director Sal Pandolfo provided figures showing that within Groton, Poquonnock Bridge covers the largest area, or about 12 square miles. Old Mystic covers the second-largest area of Groton, or about 4.6 square miles. The Old Mystic figures do not include the parts of the district in Stonington.

Strand said the council should have been upset when the Poquonnock Bridge district board decided to close one of its two fire stations last year. The station at 13 Fort Hill Road closed on Nov. 1, 2013.

"When the Poquonnock Bridge directors voted to close the Fort Hill Station, increasing response time to all the town facilities, the Town Council should have been up in arms," he said. "Now, when they are proposing laying off nine firefighters, the lack of adequate response that will be generated borders on the criminal."

Watson said he was upset when Fort Hill closed, and he said so.

"That one bothered me," he said. "How many houses do we have that are all stick-built behind Town Hall, full of kids?"

d.straszheim@theday.com

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