Judge denies Poquonnock Bridge firefighters' request for injunction against layoffs

A judge has denied a request by firefighters in the Poquonnock Bridge Fire District of Groton for a temporary injunction to rescind the layoffs of nine firefighters.

Judge Thomas Moukawsher, in a written ruling issued Friday, said with an interim request for relief with the State Board of Labor Relations that is likely to be heard within the next 30 to 60 days, firefighters had not proven an emergency exists to allow the court jurisdiction in the matter.

Firefighters had claimed the danger was too great to wait for a decision, but Moukawsher ruled “because it is not substantially probable that the firefighters will face irreparable harm in the next 60 days, the firefighter’s request for a temporary injunction is denied.”

The fire district board laid off the nine firefighters on July 29 because of a lack of money.

The Poquonnock Bridge Fire Fighters Association filed a prohibitive practices complaint with the state, asking for an interim decision that would reinstate the firefighters. A hearing date has yet to be scheduled.

Layoffs led to a reduction in manpower from five firefighters to a minimum of three firefighters on duty at any given time. Moukawsher, in his ruling, noted that the department still has four firefighters on almost every shift and if needed can maintain that level because the contract “allows the department leadership to call in additional firefighters as needed to ensure 4 men are on duty.”

Moukawsher, in his ruling, also listed key points from a hearing on Wednesday that he said showed “no emergency exists.” Among those points was the fact that rescues at the scene of structure fires was “the most dangerous things firefighters face.”

“There have been three or four rescues at structure fires in the district within the last 28 years,” he wrote. There is also the opportunity for mutual aid from neighboring departments, he said.

Moukawsher acknowledged that firefighting was risky business but took issue with statements from a Hartford deputy fire chief who “refused to acknowledge that a lower risk of fires means lower risks for firefighters.”

“To him firefighters who respond to 1 major fire a year have just as much chance of being hurt as those who respond to 100 major fires a year. This is like saying a man playing Russian Roulette faces no greater risk by pulling the trigger 5 times than he does pulling it once,” Moukawsher wrote.

Union attorney Eric Chester said he was displeased with the judge’s decision and thought it “ironic that the court referred to Russian Roulette in the ruling because it’s exactly what they’re asking firefighters to do.”

“They’re putting these people’s lives in danger,” Chester said. “That’s what we continue to do every day they run three firefighters. These are real people, real lives. It’s not a game.”

F. Jerome O’Malley, a lawyer for the fire district, said Friday he thought the court ruled correctly and that the union had not exhausted other remedies before applying for the injunction.

“We’re pleased with the decision but it’s fair to say everyone agrees it’s not an optimal situation here,” O’Malley said.

The injunction request is just one of a host of issues facing the fire district, including a budget adopted at the annual meeting that cannot support current operations of the fire department.

The fire district also awaits a judge’s decision on pending litigation against the firefighters union, an attempt to negate the 10-year labor contract that current board members claim is invalid in part because there was never district approval for the funding to pay for it. The contract calls for annual wage increases of 3 percent.

“I think it would be in everyone’s interest if the parties could conclude a new bargaining agreement, end litigation and get back to running a fire department,” O’Malley said.

g.smith@theday.com

Twitter: SmittyDay

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