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Fire services study: Integrate, don't consolidate six Norwich fire departments

Norwich — The city’s five volunteer fire departments and one paid fire department do not work together, cannot directly communicate by radio and, in some cases, do not recognize that city government has authority over them, consultants reported Tuesday.

The McGrath Consulting Group, of Wonder Lake, Ill., hired last August to do a comprehensive study of the city’s fire services, did not recommend any consolidations, and steered clear of any discussion of a citywide fire tax rate, which has been a highly controversial idea. The group said the city must address its potentially dangerous, antiquated fire communication system, and strongly recommended the city hire an administrator or fire commissioner to oversee all six fire departments and integrate their operations.

Five members of the McGrath group presented a 190-page report that contains recommendations in five priority areas to the City Council. The city's five volunteer and one paid fire chiefs were invited to attend the presentation, although council meetings remain closed to the public.

The group said a “core question” permeated its review: “What is best for the individual needing the service?” The group used the question, expressed in bold, capital letters, throughout the report to highlight deficiencies in equipment, operations and attitudes.

“There is a considerable amount of tension between career and volunteer fire departments,” the report stated, “and it appears that response to emergency incidents is not based on 'WHAT IS BEST FOR THE INDIVIDUAL NEEDING THE SERVICE' but rather on what is best for the individual or the individual department.”

Tim McGrath, the consulting group's chief executive officer, called the group’s recommendation that Norwich hire a fire services commissioner “a 180-degree turn” for him. It was the first time in more than 20 years he has recommended a city create a new department-head level position that would report directly to the city manager.

But McGrath said long-standing tensions between the city’s five volunteer departments and the central city paid fire department and the lack of recognition by some fire department leaders of city government authority led the group to make the recommendation. He said the commissioner should have experience in fire services and emergency response.

City Manager John Salomone said the timing of the report was intentional to allow him time to incorporate any financial recommendations into his proposed 2021-22 budget, which will be presented to the council April 5.

Salomone said he will explore potential grant sources for the dispatch equipment at the top of the consultants’ list of priorities. He said he, too, is very hesitant to propose adding new department head positions in the city budget. But he said he could not devote the time that would be needed to oversee and better integrate the six fire departments as proposed.

In the report, the consultants wrote that when asked what authority the city manager has over their departments, the volunteer department leaders answered: “None!” The city budget, however, funds much of the departments' equipment, all of their apparatuses and most building needs.

“This is extremely problematic inasmuch as the litigation buck will stop with the City and the rationale of ‘they are only volunteers’ or ‘we have always done it that way,’ will not suffice,” the report stated.

Victoria McGrath, CEO of a subsidiary, McGrath Human Resources Group, determined that all six Norwich fire companies are city departments, based on their funding relationship with the city. As such, she recommended standardized membership applications, qualifications and selection processes based on recognized human resources practices.

The group highlighted the communications deficiencies as the most immediate need, higher even than the Priority 1 category. Calls are received and dispatched on clunky, outdated equipment, with multiple steps that require dispatchers to navigate different procedures depending on which department is called first.

“Each organization told countless stories of the inabilities to use dispatch and speak to other emergency agencies as well as dropped calls,” the report stated. “Further, the inability to codify information electronically, and, in some cases, the reliance on pencil and paper to record incidents is a significant liability for the City.”

The consultants also examined the city's 49 fire apparatuses, an excessive total for a city Norwich's size, they reported. The report contains recommendations for reducing the fleet "with minimal to no impact on service delivery."

Tim McGrath did not shy away from the city’s political division when addressing fire department issues. He said he has never seen fire services issues so vehemently defined as “Democratic or Republican.” The study itself fell into that category. After months of debate, the council’s new 4-3 Democratic majority approved seeking bids and hiring the McGrath group for the low bid of $81,150 in August.

“It will be incumbent on political leaders to leave Democratic and Republican ideologies behind,” the report stated, “and instead, have the fortitude to make difficult decisions regarding developing a single leadership (Commissioner); the integration of departments; investments in standardized equipment, apparatus, and communications; and training to fundamentally change the culture of the fire protection services from individualism to collectivism.”

c.bessette@theday.com

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