Judge hears testimony in Poquonnock Bridge injunction request

New London — New London Superior Court Judge Thomas Moukawsher said he would issue a ruling Friday or Monday on the request for a temporary injunction to rescind the layoffs of nine firefighters in the Poquonnock Bridge Fire District.

The union and fire district argued their case in court Tuesday.

“This is an emergency situation that requires emergency relief,” Eric Chester, lawyer for the Poquonnock Bridge Fire Fighters Association, told the court during closing arguments.

But F. Jerome O’Malley, lawyer for the fire district, said the union didn’t prove an immediate threat.

“The plaintiff’s burden has not been met,” he said.

At issue is not whether the layoffs are good or bad, right or wrong, but whether they pose a safety emergency so urgent the court must intervene immediately, Moukawsher said.

“The question we will decide ultimately is, its imminence,” the judge said.

The fire district board laid off nine firefighters on July 25, and the union then filed a prohibitive practices complaint with the State Board of Labor Relations petitioning the board for interim relief. The union does not have a hearing date yet and could wait 30 to 60 days before the matter is even heard, Chester said. The layoffs mean the department runs with a minimum of three firefighters on duty and one engine rather than five on duty and two engines.

At one point during the hearing, Moukawsher asked Chief Todd Paige, who was testifying under subpoena, whether the layoffs created such an imminent threat to firefighter safety that the court needed to step in today, rather than wait 30 to 60 days for the labor board to act.

“I don’t think it needs to be addressed today, but 60 days from now is stretching it,” Paige replied. He added that, for example, “I don’t think that there is necessarily an imminent danger” that someone will be killed in the next five days. But Paige testified that as time goes on, the situation becomes more urgent.

Paige testified that he would not have laid off firefighters if the choice had been his but sent the layoff notices to firefighters because he was directed to by the district board president.

Paige said reducing staffing to a minimum of three firefighters on duty puts firefighters at greater risk and reduces the safety and performance of the fire department in the community.

“It’s a roll of the dice, sir,” he told the court.

Much of the testimony focused on what is called the “two in/two out” rule, an Occupational Health and Safety Administration regulation which says firefighters must not enter a burning building alone and must stay in contact with two others outside in case something goes wrong.

If Poquonnock Bridge has three firefighters on duty, the department complies with the rule by staying outside until help arrives, Paige said.

Capt. Brian Kiely, a firefighter for close to 20 years, testified that waiting for help increases the danger because the fire grows.

“We’re sitting outside and every minute that goes by, the fire doubles in size,” he said.

Poquonnock Bridge has an average response time of about 5 minutes, Paige said. Kiely said the department is 9 to 10 minutes away from its furthest point. The district can call in off-duty firefighters but has few firefighters who live locally, and it would take them at least 12 to 15 minutes to get to a scene, Kiely said. For most, it would take 25 minutes, he said.

If the fire department relied on mutual aid, it could take 9 to 10 minutes for help to arrive from the time the fire district realizes it needs assistance, Kiely said.

He said Poquonnock Bridge has had a minimum of five firefighters on duty for almost 20 years.

O’Malley argued that building fires are a small part of what the department does. They accounted for 16 of the 1,237 calls to the fire district during the fiscal year that ended June 30, according to a monthly report from the chief submitted into evidence.

Kiely and Paige both testified that rescues by firefighters are rare; Kiely recalled three or four during his 20 years in Poquonnock Bridge.

But Scott Brady, a retired deputy chief from the Hartford Fire Department, said firefighters save people even when rescues are not needed. They help residents evacuate by suppressing fires and keeping them at bay, almost always by working inside buildings, he said.

Brady, who testified as an expert witness, said staffing and incident command problems, such as having supervisors handle firefighting tasks, contributes to line-of-duty deaths.

He said the three-man minimum created an “extremely unsafe practice,” and firefighters should not be placed in a position where they must enter a building without two others outside.

“That’s an exception” to the two-in/two-out rule, Brady said. “That cannot become the de facto practice.”

d.straszheim@theday.com

Twitter: @DStraszheim

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