Safety at issue in Groton

The board of the Poquonnock Bridge Fire District will essentially go on trial to determine if its decision to cut nine positions endangers firefighter safety and, by extension, public safety. The Fire Fighters Association is asking Superior Court Judge Thomas Moukawsher to issue an injunction rescinding the layoffs, contending they violate the minimum staffing levels in the union contract.

Normally the courts defer to the administrative appeal process to settle these labor contract disputes, in the case of the layoffs an appeal to the Department of Labor's State Board of Mediation and Arbitration. Only after labor and management exhaust all administrative options do such disagreements end up in court.

The exception comes when the safety of workers is at risk. The administrative process could take many months, and by that time, noted Judge Moukawsher, "firefighters could be injured or dead."

To win an injunction and reinstate the jobs during the appeal process, the union still has to make its case to the judge that the disputed layoffs place safety at risk. Judge Moukawsher set a hearing for today. From our perspective, it appears a clear case that the staff cuts have created a dangerous situation.

The recent layoff of nine firefighters and the failure to fill vacancies has cut staffing by 42 percent. On some shifts, only three firefighters are on duty. That is not enough to meet the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's two-in/two-out rule - meaning no firefighter should enter a burning building alone and at least two firefighters should be in contact with them outside.

The fire district's board made the deep cuts after district taxpayers protested the high fire-district tax they must pay to provide fire protection for an area that includes a majority of Groton's public property and many of its retail businesses. At 5.9 mills it is the highest fire-district tax in the town, but roughly half what the board needs to meets its contractual obligations.

The board will face a conundrum if Judge Moukawsher reinstates the laid-off firefighters. Once again we make the case that this problem calls for a broader solution and a new approach in how Groton provides fire protection, a responsibility now spread among numerous districts that charge various tax rates. It is an inequitable system and one that has contributed to the crisis in the Poquonnock area.

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