Groton unlikely to intervene as hour nears for 9 firefighter layoffs at Poquonnock Bridge

Groton — Nine firefighters from Poquonnock Bridge will be laid off at 8 a.m. Friday, with the town unlikely to step in based on discussions earlier this week.

Town attorney Eileen Duggan told the Groton Town Council on Tuesday that it does not need to intervene, nor does it have that obligation. The fire districts are responsible for coverage, "so at this point, there's no particular role or responsibility of the town," she said.

Duggan said Poquonnock Bridge Fire District President Alan Ackley also told the council that the district has a plan for public safety, the fire district is independent and the town's intervention "would not be part of the solution at this time."

She said she agrees, based on her reading of the law.

The layoffs on Friday, combined with four department vacancies that would remain unfilled, would cut the fire department force by nearly 42 percent. Firefighters are scheduled to be staffed at a minimum of three per shift from then on, rather than the five to seven per shift now.

The crew will have one engine rather than two, Poquonnock Bridge Fire Chief Todd Paige said Wednesday. In the past, the first engine would immediately start fighting a fire and the second would secure a water line, Paige said.

"The difference is there are going to be delays in getting water," he said. Engines carry about 500 gallons each, which lasts two or three minutes, he said. A hydrant could be nearby or 500 feet away, Paige said.

Officials at nearby departments have said the layoffs would affect surrounding communities because fire departments rely on one another for help, and they would be forced to call from farther away if Poquonnock Bridge crews were busy with another call.

Paige described the mood in the fire house as "not good."

"There's a great deal of concern, worry. There are firefighters that are confused, they're scared," he said. "This is a career. It's not just a job. It's their calling."

Meanwhile, at least two actions are pending. The Poquonnock Bridge Fire Fighters Union filed a complaint on July 8 seeking an injunction to rescind the layoffs and require the district board to meet minimum staffing under the contract. A hearing is scheduled for Aug. 11 in New London Superior Court.

The fire district is also awaiting a decision on whether it must honor a 10-year labor agreement that includes annual wage increases of 3 percent. The Town of Groton petitioned to intervene in the appeal, which is in New Britain Superior Court, saying the contract affects the town pension system so it has an interest. That hearing is scheduled for Aug. 12.

Town attorney Duggan updated the Town Council in executive session Tuesday about the town's involvement in the New Britain case, and its legal obligation to provide fire coverage.

d.straszheim@theday.com

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