What does the creation of a Waterford Fire Department mean for firefighters?

Waterford — By a 16-2 vote, the Waterford Representative Town Meeting on Monday passed an ordinance creating a townwide Waterford Fire Department, which will go into effect Oct. 22.

This came after an 18-month review of fire services by the RTM’s Public Protection and Safety Standing Committee, the proposal of the ordinance and two public hearings, which involved pushback from some volunteer firefighters concerned the move would decimate the volunteer system.

“The national trend is we have less and less volunteers, so towns have to figure out how to adapt to these changes, and this is how,” committee Chairman Tim Condon explained Thursday.

Condon doesn’t believe the ordinance will have a budgetary impact, noting that if anything, the town might see some savings. But he said that wasn’t the goal; the goal was to make sure the department was operating up to standards.

The town has five volunteer fire companies: Cohanzie, Goshen, Jordan, Oswegatchie and Quaker Hill. In addition to the volunteers, the town earlier this year added two full-time paid firefighters, bringing the total to 11.

The ordinance creates one set of guidelines and procedures for the companies instead of five, and Condon said it makes it easier for the companies to share resources. He referred some questions to Director of Fire Services Bruce Miller, since he is responsible for developing the uniform standards, but Miller did not respond to messages seeking comment.

Condon said this “is not a move away from volunteers. This is the way the town is coming off the sidelines and really assisting in trying to maintain what it has and grow.”

The union representing the career firefighters tweeted Monday night, “History was made tonight in the creation of the Town of Waterford Fire Department. Thank you to all who were involved in finally creating this uniform organization. #onetownoneteam.”

But that’s not how the volunteer firefighters see it.

In April, the five volunteer companies and the Waterford Ambulance Service registered Waterford Fire & EMS LLC and are represented by New London attorney Brian Estep.

“The concerns are that they’re going to be, in essence, pushed aside through the creation of the consolidated fire department,” Estep told The Day on Wednesday.

Estep said his clients will have to decide whether they want to seek a referendum, and will explore whether the ordinance impacts agreements the fire companies previously signed with the town.

In August 1979, each of the five companies signed a brief agreement stating the company will convey its property to the town if it dissolves or ceases “to provide fire fighting service other than as a result of circumstances beyond its control,” the town will make annual appropriations to the company, and no mortgage will be placed on the property without the written consent of the town.

Estep indicated that what happens in the future depends on whether the town violates the agreements.

The Public Protection & Safety Standing Committee began the public hearing Aug. 5 and continued it Aug. 19. At the latter meeting, minutes show, the committee voted to postpone sending the ordinance to the full RTM until Sept. 18, to allow the volunteer companies time to review the standard operating procedures that Miller would be enacting.

A change made before passage Monday was including the names of the five companies in the ordinance.

Estep and Cohanzie Fire Co. spokesperson Steven Frischling previously lamented the lack of input from firefighters and company leaders in the standards, which Quaker Hill Chief Vincent Ukleja also noted as a sticking point, in a conversation with The Day on Friday.

Ukleja said a lot of the policies and procedures have to do with training, and he said Miller is going to try to implement the new standards by Jan. 1.

In a letter to fellow RTM members before Monday’s meeting, Michael Perkins asked that the next order of business for the Public Protection and Safety Committee — after the election — will be to enact “a long overdue Stipend Program for recruiting and retention of our brave and dedicated volunteers. It is becoming more and more difficult to find the time to volunteer and this group of men and women, our neighbors, deserve to be rewarded.”

Waterford changed its policy earlier this year such that firefighters can’t volunteer for their company if they’re also working there part-time, which Ukleja said resulted in Quaker Hill Co. losing five volunteers who went part-time.

e.moser@theday.com

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