Proposed townwide fire department sparks debate in Waterford

Waterford — Residents, firefighters and town officials crammed into Town Hall on Monday night to debate a proposed ordinance creating a townwide fire department, with several supporting uniform qualifications and operating procedures and others claiming the move amounts to a takeover of the town’s independent volunteer companies.

The ordinance was proposed after a roughly 18-month review of fire services by the Public Protection and Safety Standing Committee of the Representative Town Meeting and labor and town attorneys. It comes as towns across the region struggle with dwindling volunteer numbers and upheaval associated with changes in interpretations of the Fair Labor Standards Act.

Tim Condon, chairman of the committee, said in a recent 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.

Director of Fire Services Bruce Miller recently said the move would essentially create one set of standards “instead of five.”

But the proposed ordinance took some heat Monday, with speakers arguing that it placed too much authority in the director of fire services, who, per the ordinance, would establish qualifications and policies for all the town’s fire personnel. Others pushed for greater incentives for volunteers, given that Norwich and Montville offer volunteers pensions and stipends, respectively.

“Placing the development of a unified set of fireground and operations standards within the sole purview of the Director of Fire Services is shortsighted and goes against the best interests of not only those served by Waterford’s fire services, but also against the potential safety of the firefighters themselves,” Cohanzie Fire Co. spokesman Steven Frischling said in a statement.

Frischling said unified policies were a good thing but that they should be established by a working group of the involved parties, including volunteers, paid firefighters and Waterford Ambulance Service, not just an administrator.

New London attorney Brian Estep, legal counsel for Waterford Fire and EMS LLC, argued the ordinance was premature until the standards were created, and said they should include input from fire company leaders. He also said the ordinance may violate the existing memorandums of understanding the town maintains with each of the five volunteer companies.

“The new ordinance doesn’t name the companies at all,” Estep said.

Longtime resident and firefighter Wayne Gilpin called the proposed ordinance the “next step to total annihilation of the volunteer system” and said it could lead to taxpayers footing the bill for a paid fire department costing millions of dollars.

Some speakers backed the move by the committee, however, saying it could resolve some of the longstanding complexities of town fire services. The town relies 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. Waterford Ambulance Service is an independent nonprofit staffed as well by volunteers and part- and full-time firefighters.

Longtime Oswegatchie Fire Company member Vic Ferry and Finance Board member Bill Sheehan suggested the ordinance include references to state statutes and National Fire Protection Association standards to make it clear where the director of fire services receives guidance on standards and procedures.

"The key to success is agreements with the five companies and the ambulance servicel. It will probably take five to 10 years to get the correct balance," Sheehan said. "In any case, this is a good first step and a momentous change to the culture of Waterford fire services.”

Ferry, who's been active in emergency management planning for four decades, said he was working with Miller on uniform policies, noting that in the current system, the five separate companies have subtle differences in requirements, including in qualifications for chiefs.

“Congrats on trying to bring some order to Waterford fire service and calling it a fire department,” he said. “The volunteer folks have done a superb job for our community. The problem is in coverage. They work full-time jobs elsewhere so they do need support. The qualifications for the paid guys are all the same. There should be the same qualifications for chief. Someone should stand up and say that.”

The debate comes a few months after 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.

Firefighters say the move has left several shifts unfilled in recent weeks, but Miller says staffing levels should be shored up by September.

The town this spring bolstered overnight and weekend coverage by boosting its full-time staff from nine to 11 firefighters. The two new hires are completing training, Miller said.

Waterford Ambulance Service has stepped up to add staff, officials say, with EMS calls on the rise.

Condon, First Selectman Dan Steward and other town officials have repeatedly said the town needs both volunteers and career firefighters working together. Condon said after the ordinance passes, town officials should discuss incentive programs in depth.

Waterford currently offers a property tax abatement but only to volunteers who live within the town.

In a recent letter to the RTM, members Joshua Steel Kelly and Beth Sabilia propose the town take action following the General Assembly’s late June passage of Public Act No. 19-36, which allows an increase to the property tax abatement — up to $1,500 — offered to volunteers. The act also allows municipalities to enter interlocal agreements to expand the tax break to volunteers who live out of town.

The public hearing will continue on Monday, Aug. 19, at Town Hall, before the committee votes to send the proposed ordinance to the RTM.

b.kail@theday.com

Editor's Note: This article has been updated to clarify Vic Ferry's involvement in Waterford fire services and emergency management.

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