Could have been so much worse

The day after a disaster, looking at a charred building or a wrecked car or a pair of crutches, it can be hard to find the bright spot. And yet, as survivors of such incidents so often seem moved to say, "It could have been so much worse."

The oil-fed fire that consumed two structures, six delivery trucks and other equipment at Guy's Oil Service Station in Niantic early Sunday morning did not kill or injure anyone — which might have been difficult for the watchers who gathered in the dark to believe. Flames shot an estimated 50 feet in the air — as high, one neighbor noted, as the tree line. People woke up at the scary sound of explosions. And yet, it could have been so much worse.

The Gada family has operated different aspects of their automotive and fuel businesses in the Niantic section of East Lyme for generations. Lots of people in town are related to them. They are well known and respected. If the Gadas could be said to have been paying it forward, on Sunday morning they were the beneficiaries of that. Once the fire was out, people came from all around to spread sand where the fuel spilled, patch the holes in the roof of the buildings still standing, and do the next-day chores that can be overwhelming not only for the heavy lifting but for the emotional freight.

Before that could happen, however, the spectacular fire got the full-on response of fire departments from as far west as Old Saybrook and as far north as Norwich. About 90 minutes after it was called in, the fire had been contained. Ninety minutes of uncontrolled burning is evidence of how bad it could have been without their coordinated response. The cause is under investigation.

Departments on scene Sunday morning included some from towns that function with a mix of paid and volunteer firefighters, a venerable practice in New England but ultimately not in keeping with federal labor law if the same firefighter works for pay sometimes and as a volunteer at others. Volunteer departments and the towns they help protect have also been dealing for years with declining numbers and fewer hours from those who do volunteer. A person who commutes 25 miles to work, for example, is less likely to be near home when the call goes out.

Municipalities are facing up to the implications for staffing and costs with a variety of legal strategies. For decades they ignored the federal law for what seemed to be the good of public safety but also because many emergency responders were glad to have it both ways.

Towns now have no option but to regularize the status of those who answer the call. Still, a major emergency like the one Sunday reminds us why it once seemed forgiveable to put the fire out first; ask legal questions later.  

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Tim Cotter, Staff Writer Julia Bergman and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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