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Quaker Hill fire company, residents press town to add paid firefighter

Waterford — Quaker Hill Fire Co. Chief Vincent Ukleja has been leading an effort among residents to get the town to put a paid firefighter back on staff.

Numerous Facebook posts, a petition, even a meeting among residents at the firehouse culminated in an in-depth discussion during Tuesday’s Board of Selectmen meeting.

Though First Selectman Rob Brule and Fire Services Director Bruce Miller have faced pressure to address the fire coverage complaint coming from Quaker Hill, they maintain that the town has stronger fire and emergency services coverage due to a recent agreement with Waterford Ambulance Service. The deal aims to ease the burden on firefighters: Rather than having firefighters staff ambulances in town, Waterford Ambulance Service personnel now will be the primary responders to emergency medical situations, with help from qualified firefighters if necessary.

Ukleja said on March 1 of this year, the town stopped providing resources for a paid firefighter at the Quaker Hill firehouse. Now, he says he’s concerned a volunteer-only staff will not be enough to properly cover the area.

“After I complained to Rob (Brule), he did give us one eight-hour shift during the week, which is a Saturday, just to get the daily checks done on five vehicles,” Ukleja said. “We have nobody Monday (through) Friday to answer phones, to do the maintenance on the trucks, to let the vendors in to do the work that needs to be done on the firetrucks or the building, to respond to calls. We run mutual aid to Montville and New London, and we can’t take care of our own district.”

Without a paid firefighter, the chief and a few others are filling holes — Ukleja said he goes to the firehouse for daily checks and to answer phones, along with his deputy and a couple of volunteers.

The chief helped organize a petition, collecting almost 600 signatures, to put this topic on the agenda of town boards, starting with the selectmen. He explained why he and others felt the need to have a community meeting prior to the Board of Selectmen meeting to go over the issue.

“When I became chief, my whole idea and thought process was if something’s going on in town, the people have to know what the town is doing,” Ukleja said. “I am very critical of that, because when a crisis arises like this, nobody’s saying anything to the Quaker Hill residents, and I’m not that way. People need to know why we’re doing what we’re doing.”

Numerous residents, as well as Ukleja, posted on Quaker Hill’s community Facebook forum complaining about a lack of transparency from the town. Brule, who prides himself on being transparent with town residents, said he’d rather go over the issue during a public meeting rather than go back and forth with people on Facebook.

Still, Miller said, “every phone call and email was answered.” He spoke of the town’s position on Quaker Hill’s problem in an Aug. 21 letter, noting that the town’s staffing model has evolved in recent years as it “adapts to changing needs.”

“Currently, a combination of volunteer, part-time paid and full-time paid firefighters provide fire services throughout the town,” Miller wrote. “Paid staff are presently assigned to Cohanzie and Jordan; these are centrally located firehouses that provide the best means of access throughout town and the ability to respond to calls within time frames outlined in applicable guidelines.”

Brule said he perceives the feelings and actions of Quaker Hill residents and its fire company as a healthy sign of local democracy, but also as “growing pains.”

“I’m not ignoring the referendum from 10 years ago that determined we don’t want individual stations running the show, we want a townwide fire administrator to run emergency services,” Brule said. “I think this is just a transition.”

Tuesday night, the bulk of the Board of Selectmen’s meeting focused on Quaker Hill emergency services coverage. Brule, Selectwoman Elizabeth Sabilia and Selectwoman Jody Nazarchyk listened as numerous residents expressed their fear — via Zoom — that their nearest firehouse doesn’t have the staff to respond to emergencies in a timely manner. In sum, Quaker Hill residents felt that 24/7 emergency services coverage came at the expense of their section of town.

Sabilia noted that though Miller, Brule and Waterford Ambulance EMS manager Charles Bynum said the system is working and Quaker Hill, with mutual aid from New London and Montville, as well as crews from the Cohanzie and Quaker Hill firehouses, would be well-covered, residents do not feel that's true.

She recounted a time when her house caught fire.

“We were woken up by a neighbor banging on the door, yelling at us to get out of the house,” Sabilia said. “Seconds absolutely count when there is a fire, when there is an emergency, and no one from Quaker Hill can tell me that at 3 o’clock in the morning, there’s no difference between a two-minute response and a nine-minute response, because there is a difference.”

She added that the town needs to study the data on response times and other factors in order to make an informed decision on how to handle the situation. Brule promised Ukleja that this matter is ongoing, and will be discussed again with public comment at the next Board of Selectmen meeting.

s.spinella@theday.com

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