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Solid Norwich fire-service report sidesteps key issue

The latest consultant’s report for improving fire protection in Norwich has some sound ideas. But in an effort to sidestep a political ignition point that has sent prior reports up in flames, it sidesteps a fundamental unfairness about who and how fire service is paid for.

This politically cautious approach may indeed improve the chances of achieving some fundamental improvements without factional disagreements again striking the match that sends the whole effort up in smoke, effectively burning up the $81,000 spent on the report along with it.

But, as unpleasant as it may be, the reality that some in the city are forced to pay so much more for fire protection than others — creating an anchor that weighs on development efforts in the heart of Norwich’s urban center — must at some point be addressed.

As with many New England communities, Norwich has a fire service that is a product of history and tradition.

Its 3.2-square-mile central district, with its older housing stock and 26,000 people clustered in dense development, is protected by the Norwich Fire Department. Fifty-two paid firefighters staff its two fire stations around the clock.

Meanwhile five volunteer departments — Laurel Hill, Yantic, Taftville, Occum and East Great Plain — cover approximately 25 square miles with a population of 14,000. Created to protect mills and mill villages at a time when villages were more isolated one from another, this is not how a modern fire service would be designed if created from scratch.

But the consultants found the volunteer companies are largely well staffed — bucking national trends of big volunteer declines — and they recognized that recommendations to eliminate or consolidate volunteer departments would be a nonstarter politically.

Working with what Norwich now has makes sense. And the report by the McGrath Consulting Group of Wonder Lake, Ill. includes one strong recommendation that city leaders cannot ignore. To do so would expose Norwich to significant liability and its citizens to unnecessary risk.

The city’s six departments use different radio and communication systems, some computerized and some using pencil on paper, putting too much pressure on dispatchers, and raising the chance of mistakes in response and record keeping, the review found.

Now so clearly identified, this issue must be fixed.

The report also notes that because the primary source of funding for the volunteer companies is the city, they will be judged as city departments when it comes to state and federal rules. They need to follow standardized membership application procedures — not now the case — and other human resources practices. This should be low-hanging fruit.

Harder will be winnowing down the excessive firefighting equipment, 49 fire apparatuses for the city of 40,000, with each department wanting its own full compliment. The report identifies about 20 pieces of equipment that can be immediately retired or phased out when they reach their life expectancy, without detracting from public safety.

Using less equipment but integrating it better, and providing standardization in communication, training and human resources, will all benefit from the City Council creating a new position of Norwich Fire Commissioner, the report recommends. The commissioner would have administrative standing over all the departments and answerable directly to the city manager.

It’s a good idea, with the potential to achieve efficiency savings to pay for itself. However, we suspect it will not be well received by the respective fire chiefs.

We fully endorse the recommendation that the city department, with its always-staffed stations, should automatically respond to all structure fires in the volunteer districts. Conversely, the closest volunteer department should respond to structure fires in the paid district, it concludes.

In a fire, minutes and even seconds can be the difference between lives saved or lives lost. The consultants found in some instances a reluctance to tap the paid fire service for help. This is a dangerous conceit.

Having that full-time, paid department is an important insurance policy for the city — all of it. It can be an asset to the volunteer departments. And it helps the entire city by providing necessary quick response in the central commercial district and surrounding neighborhoods.

This is why we continue to advocate for one tax, even though it is explicitly rejected by the report, seemingly on the grounds of political pragmatism.

Property owners pay an additional tax of 6.41 mills in the central city fire district, for a total tax rate of 48.47 mills. The added fire tax in the volunteer districts is only 0.32 mills.

It is one city. We will continue to push for one tax rate covering all services, including fire protection.

 

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 Izaskun E. Larrañeta, 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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