Waterford to hold public hearings on creating townwide fire department

Waterford — A public hearing is planned next week on a proposed ordinance that officials say will create a town-wide fire department and establish uniform qualifications and operating procedures under which the town's five volunteer companies would operate.

The proposed ordinance follows a roughly 18-month review of fire services by the Public Protection and Safety Standing Committee of the RTM, and labor and town attorneys. It also comes as towns across the region continue to grapple with manpower issues amid dwindling volunteer numbers and upheaval sparked by tighter interpretation of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).

Tim Condon, chairman of the committee, said in an interview that creating "one cohesive department" helps the town enforce proper training and qualifications while better enabling volunteer and career firefighters to service the town anywhere they're needed.

"By setting up one department it makes everybody answer to one central location, the director of fire services, and his office can create policies, including training, and standards that are town-wide," Condon said. "The idea behind this is that we've got five companies and we're trying to mold them while being respectful that they're steeped in tradition. The attempt is to put everybody on the same page. The five independent companies are still going to exist and be independent, it's just how the town is looking to assist volunteers and provide service."

The ordinance states that "any individual, volunteer or paid, wishing to serve in the Waterford Fire Department, must meet and maintain the qualifications for said volunteer or paid position as set forth by the Director of Fire Services and Director of Human Resources ... All personnel are responsible for operating in conformance with unified policies, rules and procedures established by the Director of Fire Services."

"Instead of five policy manuals, there will be one," is how Director of Fire Services Bruce Miller described the change in an interview. "It's essentially the same content but improved and updated with the times."

First Selectman Dan Steward said while the ordinance has produced rumors about the direction of fire services, it's about "standardization and programs that will work and protect our public."

"We're trying to do what's right for the town yet respecting what these fire companies do," he said. "It's been a long process to get standardization and we're making sure what we have will work and not get anyone hurt."

Steven Frischling, spokesman for the Cohanzie Fire Company, said the ordinance has concerned some volunteer firefighters. He argued establishing "one set of guidelines would make it easier for everybody, career, volunteer, part-time ... but a singular fire service would require a charter change. They're seeking to get around that each of the five fire companies are wholly independent."

Officials and firefighters alike acknowledge the complexity of the town's fire services, which rely on five independent volunteer companies that own their stations but use town equipment, and are staffed by a mix of volunteers supported by career firefighters and part-timers.

Earlier this year, Waterford and Montville, on the advice of lawyers looking to comply with federal labor laws, told dozens of firefighters they cannot be both part-timers and volunteers — at least not at the same station. The 1938 federal labor law, which bars town employees from performing "volunteer services for the same entity by which they are employed," shields workers from missing out on compensation.

Frischling said the town's decision to not let volunteers also pick up part-time shifts has created a situation forcing part-timers to work excessive hours — to the point where they could eventually demand benefits.

"They went from not having an FLSA problem to having one," he argued.

Miller countered that while the town has used some overtime following the changes, the "numbers should be back up in full force by September, with more part-timers and the full-timers in training out on their own. The key to it is, we didn't lose anybody. The choice wasn't to stay or go, the choice was, are you part-time or volunteer."

The town this spring bolstered overnight and weekend coverage by boosting its full-time staff from nine to 11 firefighters, and the nonprofit Waterford Ambulance Service — also staffed by a mix of volunteers and town-paid part- and full-time firefighters — "has stepped up ... to figure out how we get these shifts filled," Steward said. Waterford receives few fire calls, but "EMS calls are out of sight," Steward said recently, noting the town ran 3,000 ambulance calls last year, almost 800 to area nursing homes.

In April, longtime town firefighter Kevin Ziolkovski formally requested "financial compensation for all hours worked as a volunteer firefighter ... from Jan. 1, 1989, to the present." He later sent a formal complaint to the state. As of last week, he was waiting to hear from the town how many hours he had worked during the period.

Ziolkovski said he sent letters asking state representatives and the governor's office if the town has the authority "to attempt to start a brand new department."

Ziolkovski and other firefighters have acknowledged that volunteer numbers are dwindling across the state and country. In Waterford, they point to a lack of incentive programs compared to Norwich or Montville; a property tax break for volunteers only applies to those living in Waterford.

"They talk a great game but they don't ever start a program," Ziolkovski said about two officials.

Condon said following the passage of the new fire services ordinance, town officials want to "work with volunteers and administrators in trying to put together a stipend program. Anything we can do to slow the loss of the volunteer system and help bolster it — that's what we're looking into."

"Communities across America are dealing with the same thing," Condon added. "You need in excess of 500 hours of training before you can help mitigate an emergency scene. That's a tall order."

Condon said the public hearing, which begins Monday, Aug. 5 at 5:30 p.m. at Town Hall, would be continued on other days and an RTM vote would come later.

"We want to make sure people have ample time to digest this," he said. "We want to hear from the public and if real concerns are brought forward, then there's time to consider them."

b.kail@theday.com

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