Norwich's fire service more fractured than ever, officials say

Volunteer firefighters with the Occum Fire Department get a water supply hose attached to a fire hydrant Tuesday, June 20, 2016, during a hose and pump training drill behind their fire station in Norwich. Fire officials and city leaders can’t agree over how to improve operations when it comes to the city’s only paid fire department and its five volunteer ones.  (Tim Cook/The Day)
Volunteer firefighters with the Occum Fire Department get a water supply hose attached to a fire hydrant Tuesday, June 20, 2016, during a hose and pump training drill behind their fire station in Norwich. Fire officials and city leaders can’t agree over how to improve operations when it comes to the city’s only paid fire department and its five volunteer ones. (Tim Cook/The Day)

Norwich — If a fire erupts at a house in the city's oldest, most historic neighborhood around the Norwichtown Green, the volunteer Yantic Fire Engine Co. No. 1 would be the first to respond.

If a second alarm is sounded, according to a written mutual aid plan, volunteer departments Taftville, East Great Plain, Occum and Baltic would be called.

On a third alarm, additional Baltic, East Great Plain and Occum crews, plus the Bozrah Volunteer Fire Company, would be called.

On a fourth alarm, the volunteer Laurel Hill department at the southern tip of Norwich and volunteer departments from Franklin, Lebanon and Lisbon would be dispatched.

The Norwich Fire Department, which is paid, fully staffed and closest to the scene — just 2.2 miles away — is listed at the bottom of the plan as a “special call” if deemed necessary by incident commanders.

Those familiar with the city's fractured fire system say Norwich Fire Department trucks often are not called to fires almost anywhere in the volunteer districts, regardless of proximity and staffing, even if the mutual aid plan — more commonly called run cards — lists the paid department.

At times, volunteer firefighters drive by the city's paid fire station near Norwich Harbor to respond to mutual aid in another city volunteer district, said retired Norwich fire Capt. William Dennis, who has launched an appeal to city leaders to fix the system. 

Dennis said he won’t stop pushing the issue until it is resolved.

“As I have tried to explain in my many emails, the need (exists) for some very serious changes to take effect within the entire Fire Service of Norwich,” Dennis wrote Wednesday to Norwich Alderman William Nash, chairman of the City Council's Public Safety Committee.

“There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that people’s lives, as well as firefighters', are being put at much greater risk than they should be every day that no changes are made,” Dennis wrote.

Norwich volunteer fire department chiefs deny any inherent safety hazard, either in general or during specific incidents noted by Dennis and others.

Yantic Fire Chief Frank Blanchard said response and mutual aid have been prompt and within national standards set by the National Fire Protection Association, which say volunteer companies should respond within 10 minutes to 90 percent of their calls.

Blanchard said Yantic responses "exceed the standard on average."

He said incident commanders make mutual aid decisions based on specific equipment and staffing needed.

Interdepartmental animosity

Tensions between the city's one professional fire department and five volunteer companies have ranged over the years from periods of uneasy truce to public battles.

Longtime firefighters and city officials say the current rift is the worst they've seen, magnified by the city’s poor economy, high taxes and volatile political climate as the 2017 mayoral race nears.

“The issues arising now are totally ridiculous,” Occum Fire Chief Robert LaChapelle, a 45-year volunteer, said.

“I've never seen such hate and discontent," he said. "It's not with the volunteers, but with the paid service. We're all trying to work together as a team, but it doesn't work when you have one group trying to run the whole city.”

Norwich Fire Chief Kenneth Scandariato strongly denied that he and his firefighters are the root cause and said he never — as LaChapelle has claimed — threatened to eliminate any of the volunteer departments.

Scandariato said the citywide mutual aid policy should be to call the closest Norwich department first. He said he follows that practice.

“There's a perceived threat that any modification would be to eliminate them,” Scandariato said. “Nothing could be farther from the truth. I've never been in favor of that."

"Any issues we have operationally, all we have to do is sit down as adults and talk about the strengths we have," he said. "They're worried that any discussion would reveal the weaknesses.”

City Council members said they are hearing reports that volunteer departments are less willing to call the paid department for mutual aid, and that paid firefighters have been told at some scenes that they were not needed.

Nash, a Republican, said he is trying to get the departments to work together to assess all trucks and equipment.

He said he hopes the Public Safety Committee can address the equipment issue in August.

“I've been trying for eight years to get better assessment of the trucks,” Nash said. “I asked each (chief) to put together a plan. 'If you were chief of the entire city, what trucks would you need?' Some declined.”

Yantic Chief Blanchard blamed Mayor Deberey Hinchey directly for the widening rift, citing her unsuccessful effort in spring of 2014 to eliminate fire tax districts and spread all fire costs citywide.

Norwich has a convoluted tax system. 

All property owners pay a citywide tax, 41.22 mills this year. But residents of the City Consolidated District, which is covered by the paid fire department, pay an additional 7.84 mills to cover the salaries of the paid fire staff.

Property owners in the five volunteer districts pay an additional 0.48 mills to cover volunteer firefighter pensions, tax breaks and workers’ compensation.

Complicating the picture, the city owns all but the Yantic and East Great Plain fire stations, and all taxpayers pay for maintenance and repairs of all the buildings.

The city also owns all trucks and equipment. A referendum could be held in 2017 on firetruck purchases.

Citywide taxpayers also fund the fire marshals and battalion chiefs, who work at the paid fire station.

Hinchey withdrew the proposed one-tax ordinance in March 2014 amid a stream of personal attacks on the aldermen who supported the plan.

Later, the Charter Revision Commission rejected the proposal.

“Her actions effectively put the paid and volunteer fire service organizations in a boxing ring and forced them to fight,” Blanchard said, issuing a two-page written statement defending the current dual tax system for paid and volunteer districts.

“None of these protocols should have ever been introduced. It is sad to see neighbors, friends and especially firefighters at odds over taxation issues created by Mayor Hinchey,” he wrote.

“Everybody wants to blame everybody, but all I want is to ensure public safety,” Hinchey responded.

Blanchard defended mutual aid practices, saying he can call the city for help whenever it's necessary. But he said he sometimes is reluctant because the paid department works best as a complete unit of 13 firefighters.

Calling one truck “fractures” that system and might leave the city shorthanded if another call arises, he said.

Scandariato countered Blanchard’s argument.

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” Scandariato said. “And whatever they require, whatever they request, we would send them without hesitation. It’s not that we are limiting them with their help; as a matter of fact, we would like to help them more but we’re not allowed to. Whatever they would need, we would send. We would not hold anything back.”

Leaders disagree

The City Council appears as sharply divided as the fire department leaders in the controversy.

Republican Council President Pro Tempore Peter Nystrom, a strong supporter of the volunteer departments and a possible 2017 mayoral candidate, publicly criticized Scandariato repeatedly this spring, claiming the paid department budget is inflated and overstaffed for the 3.5 square miles it covers.

Nystrom compiled comparisons with 12 other Connecticut cities that have either fully paid or combination paid/volunteer service and concluded that Norwich’s $9.7 million budget far surpasses all of them for a much smaller area.

Nystrom would like to reduce paid per-shift staffing from 13 to nine firefighters and use volunteer departments more on central city calls.

Nystrom also criticized a longtime practice of using a portion of city revenue received from Norwich Public Utilities to offset the City Consolidated District fire tax.

He complained of “shell game” financing, but city leaders said a portion of the $2.9 million NPU funds applied to the district covers non-taxed NPU buildings and equipment within the district.

Nystrom persuaded the 5-2 majority Republican council to support redirecting $500,000 in NPU revenue into the general citywide budget, lowering the tax increase citywide, but causing a 1-mill increase in the City Consolidated District fire tax.

Those same Republicans two weeks later blasted Nystrom on the council floor for his attacks on Scandariato.

Republican Alderman Jerry Martin — the only alderman who lives in the City Consolidated District — asked Nystrom to publicly apologize to the chief.

Martin, a member of the Public Safety Committee, questioned the ability of volunteer departments to respond to the center city, citing complaints the committee has received about dispatchers needing to call volunteer departments sometimes multiple times.

The committee learned recently of a 10-minute response time by Yantic to a car fire on Washington Street, which is just across the line of the paid department's district.

Republican Alderwoman Joanne Philbrick, who lives on Norwichtown Green, has pledged to revive the 2014 citywide fire tax ordinance.

“To me, that would solve a variety of problems,” she said. “The mill rate would be the same throughout the city ... I am prepared to do it, at least put it out there. You present an ordinance and hopefully, you get a second and you hold a public hearing and you vote.”

She said last week that she already has begun to receive "hate mail" for her stance.

Mayor Hinchey and Alderman H. Tucker Braddock, both Democrats, publicly support the one-city tax.

Nystrom and Republican Alderwoman Stacy Gould, an active East Great Plain volunteer firefighter, oppose it.

Alderman Martin agreed, “what we have now is broken,” but he said he's unsure whether he would support the one-city tax.

If spreading the fire tax passes, Martin said, he would support additional compensation for volunteer firefighters.

Currently, those who meet city training and response qualifications can receive up to $1,000 per year off their property tax bills.

“To keep dividing us is counterproductive,” Martin said.

He has spoken with a potential business owner, he said, who has decided to “re-examine” a plan to open a business downtown because of the 1-mill increase in the central city fire tax.

Nash said he wants to try other methods of central city tax relief before he would support the one-city tax, including sharing the full costs of city-owned buildings in the central city.

Aldermen are united on one idea: They all want new City Manager John Salomone to make improved fire service relations a top priority, starting with a return of the biweekly chiefs meetings that acting City Manager John Bilda put in place during his one-year tenure.

Gould said she thinks a fire chiefs retreat might help clear the air.

Some support a standardized response policy with the nearest Norwich department — whether paid or volunteer — called to be the first on scene.

And some agree with retired fire Captain Dennis' suggestion that the city paid department be an automatic responder to all medical facilities and some densely populated buildings.

Salomone said he will reinstate the biweekly meetings, at first to discuss specific issues, such as equipment and apparatus needs and building upkeep.

The city is applying for grants for upgrades to the Occum and Taftville fire houses.

Salomone said he has visited all the departments and has attended social functions — something volunteer chiefs say is rare for most city elected officials.

“I'm working on establishing a good relationship with all the volunteer chiefs,” Salomone said. “I'm now working with Occum and Taftville on their grants."

"When you have a good working relationship, it helps," he said. "I've been to each station at least once, some twice and tried to avail myself of some of the social side of it."

"It takes time to establish that relationship," he added. "I hope I can establish I am a fair administrator who can work fairly and solve the problems that exist. The key is it's a two-way street.”

c.bessette@theday.com

Firefighters gather as three members of the Norwich Fire Department, the city's only paid firefighting force, are promoted to officer positions Wednesday, June 29, 2016, during a ceremony at Norwich fire headquarters. (Tim Cook/The Day)
Firefighters gather as three members of the Norwich Fire Department, the city's only paid firefighting force, are promoted to officer positions Wednesday, June 29, 2016, during a ceremony at Norwich fire headquarters. (Tim Cook/The Day)
Occum Fire Department Assistant Chief Engineer Carroll Spaulding, left, and department EMS coordinator Jessica Strout operate a deck gun Tuesday, June 28, 2016, during a hose and pump training drill behind their fire station in Norwich.  (Tim Cook/The Day)
Occum Fire Department Assistant Chief Engineer Carroll Spaulding, left, and department EMS coordinator Jessica Strout operate a deck gun Tuesday, June 28, 2016, during a hose and pump training drill behind their fire station in Norwich. (Tim Cook/The Day)
Norwich City firefighters chat Wednesday, June 29, 2016, at Norwich Fire Headquarters after a ceremony for three members who were promoted to officer positions. (Tim Cook/The Day)
Norwich City firefighters chat Wednesday, June 29, 2016, at Norwich Fire Headquarters after a ceremony for three members who were promoted to officer positions. (Tim Cook/The Day)
Personal protective equipment for Norwich City firefighters hangs at the ready Wednesday, June 29, 2016, at Norwich Fire Headquarters. (Tim Cook/The Day)
Personal protective equipment for Norwich City firefighters hangs at the ready Wednesday, June 29, 2016, at Norwich Fire Headquarters. (Tim Cook/The Day)


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