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This story corrects an earlier version.
Groton — The Poquonnock Bridge Fire District laid off nine firefighters at 8 a.m. Friday, meaning some shifts could be covered by just three firefighters.
Fire Chief Todd Paige, who has been with the department for 28 years, said: “This is at the bottom,” adding that he feels “sadness, difficulty, frustration.”
The layoffs, combined with four department vacancies that will remain unfilled, cut the fire department force by nearly 42 percent. The department, which previously had a minimum of five firefighters on duty per shift and two engines, will have a minimum of three firefighters on duty per shift and one engine.
The department is also changing its response to medical calls due to the layoffs. Soon Poquonnock Bridge will not respond to medical calls unless they are life-threatening emergencies, Paige said.
In the past, the fire station would also have responded to basic emergency calls, such as when someone falls and can’t get up. The fire department responds to about 2,000 emergency calls a year, of which 1,200 to 1,300 are medical calls, Paige said.
Poquonnock Bridge, Groton’s largest fire district, also does not have a working ladder truck. Its lone remaining engine carries a ladder that can reach up to the second floor. The fire district closed one of its two fire houses, at 13 Fort Hill Road, on Nov. 1, 2013, to save money.
The number of engines has impact because it affects how quickly firefighters access water. In the past, firefighters on the first engine would start battling a fire using the few minutes’ worth of water held in the truck, and those on the second engine would secure a water line. Paige said losing the second crew could delay getting water to a fire if a hydrant is far away.
Firefighters also need at least four firefighters on duty to enter a building and attack a fire from inside due to federal safety rules.
The department, which had 25 firefighters before layoffs and now has 16, can still staff four per shift. But as a practical matter, it may often have fewer due to illnesses or vacation. It had three on duty after layoffs Friday morning.
“Fire doubles in size for every 1 minute of free burn,” Capt. Tim Driscoll said. “Now we’re responding with one engine, with what we used to respond to with two engines. ... We’re responding out of one fire house. ... It’s going to take us longer to get there.”
At 10 p.m. Thursday a fire broke out in the bedroom of a second-floor apartment at 359 Long Hill Road, next door to the Long Hill Road fire station. Firefighters had the fire out at Phoenix Apartments in minutes, and there were no injuries.
“We showed up with five guys so we were able to go in the building, locate the fire and extinguish the fire,” said Mark Murphy, a firefighter for 20 years. “Today, we won’t be able to do that.”
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.
“It’s just a sad time for the department,” said Bryan Quilter, a district firefighter for 9½ years. “We haven’t had one engine in this department since the 1930s.”
Seema Mehta, who lives with her husband and 5-month-old daughter in the third-floor of the Phoenix Apartments — above where the fire started — said it was scary to learn that firefighters are being laid off and the department has no ladder truck. Her neighbor across the hall also has children, she said.
“If there was something going on up here, that’s petrifying to me,” Mehta said.
On July 10, nearly 100 firefighters and their families marched in Groton to protest the pending cuts. The president of the nearby Old Mystic Fire District board of directors also wrote a letter to the town mayor and town councilors, saying the lack of sufficient emergency response that would occur after layoffs “borders on the criminal.”
The Groton Town Council was advised earlier this week that it should not step in right now, nor did it have to. Town Attorney Eileen Duggan told councilors the fire district was responsible for fire protection. Groton is divided into nine fire districts that operate independently.
Joe Baril, a Poquonnock Bridge firefighter for 16 years, said he’s afraid that by the time the town does step in, it’ll be too late.
“We’re down to one engine that’s really old, our ladder truck is basically rotting at the dump. When the town finally takes over, there’s going to be nothing left,” he said. “It’s easy to maintain the system. It’s going to be very costly to bring it back.”