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Study: Norwich has 'a heck of a lot more' fire apparatus than bigger cities

Norwich — Over the years, critics of the combined paid and volunteer Norwich fire system have cited anecdotes or statistics that the city has more firetrucks than — fill in the blank — larger city.

A new in-depth study of the city’s fire services, released Feb. 16 filled in some of the blanks and added “a heck of a lot more” on one comparison.

The 194-page study by McGrath Consulting Group analyzed the city's 49 pieces of apparatus at the two paid fire stations and five volunteer companies, including firetrucks, other vehicles, boats and trailers.

CEO Tim McGrath said his company had done fire services studies in 37 states before Norwich. He pulled out the studies in the past two years in other cities with six fire stations. Norwich has 28 square miles and a population of about 40,000.

One career system in California covers 49 square miles and 122,000 people with 34 apparatus. A combined career and volunteer system in Illinois covers 240 square miles and 7,500 residents with 22 apparatus. A career system in Kentucky covers 21 square miles and 25,000 people with 17 apparatus.

McGrath said a department in the San Francisco Bay area protects 220,000 people. “And they have a heck of a lot less equipment than you have, a heck of a lot less,” he said, “and they do a really great job.”

The full report lists three Norwich fire apparatus that could be removed from service immediately and not replaced and another five vehicles that could be retired or sold in a few years. Some vehicles could be transferred from one Norwich department to another.

“Moving forward, there is ample support from all Norwich departments in times of need,” the consultants wrote with each recommended reduction.

Consultant Justin Stried told the City Council at the Feb. 16 presentation that 70% of Norwich Fire Department’s calls are for emergency medical service, in conjunction with American Ambulance. He said that mirrors a national trend.

The consultants recommended replacing one fire engine at the central city station with a smaller emergency response vehicle for improved service. The department currently staffs two engine trucks on calls.

Stried cited the six Norwich departments’ history of autonomy, strong pride in their service, apparatus and stations for the duplication of equipment over the years. To better integrate the units, the consultants called for unified training and shared responses to structure fire calls.

Under the plan, the city department would respond automatically to all structure fires in the volunteer districts, and the closest volunteer department would respond automatically to structure fires in the central city fire district. Unified training would ensure firefighters could use all apparatus and don another department’s equipment safely.

“We fully understanding the pride everybody has for their fleet,” Stied said, “but again, we’re together, we’re not separate. We’re very aligned.”

One major recommendation calls for the city to hire a fire commissioner to oversee all fire departments, coordinate purchases, reductions and training. McGrath said he rarely recommends adding staff but felt this was the best way for Norwich to overcome the long culture of autonomy.

McGrath was confident the city would save the cost of the fire commissioner through the reductions and improved efficiencies.

The City Council's Public Safety Committee recommended an outside fire study last year after members were frustrated at failed in-house efforts to reduce the fire fleet. After voters approved $3.2 million to purchase five new firetrucks to replace six aged trucks in 2017, the committee asked City Manager John Salomone and the fire chiefs to come up with a plan to phase out older apparatus.

“The schedule we got was asking for six new trucks,” Public Safety Committee Chairman Alderman Joseph DeLucia said at the April 7, 2020, council meeting.

DeLucia last week said city officials have been talking about reducing apparatus for 35 years without much success. He said he was not yet ready to support a fire commissioner but does want the six city fire chiefs to meet monthly to coordinate the unified training.

Yantic volunteer Fire Chief Frank Blanchard strongly disagreed with the consultants’ report’s repeated references to the ongoing tensions between the paid and volunteer departments. Blanchard, who soon will celebrate his 20th year as Yantic chief, said relations are “10-fold” better than they were 20 years ago. Departments work with the city on uniform equipment bids and have trained together more in the past five years.

Blanchard said implementing an automatic response by the paid department into volunteer districts and by a volunteer department into the paid district would take some work.

“There’s a lot of logistics to the automatic response,” Blanchard said. “What are the resources available on what is responding? There’s a lot to be worked out.”

Norwich Fire Chief Tracy Montoya said the fire commissioner idea has been suggested in the past and could be valuable, but he too is “not convinced it’s necessary.” He suggested the city manager or City Council Public Safety Committee could provide the oversight.

“I do like the idea of being more integrated,” Montoya said. “I don’t know the avenue to get there. Automatic response, going in both directions, we all acknowledge getting adequate response in both directions is good.”

c.bessette@theday.com

A firetruck, right, from Taftville Volunteer Fire Department, one of Norwich's five volunteer departments, is among the fire apparatus moving into place between buildings during a staging and communications fire drill in Norwich on Nov. 15, 2015, that involved several paid and volunteer fire departments from the city and surrounding area. A comprehensive study of Norwich fire services analyzed the city's 49 pieces of fire apparatus, urging equipment reductions and more integrated training among the city's paid and volunteer fire departments, among other recommendations.  (Steven Frischling/Special to The Day, FILE)
A firetruck, right, from Taftville Volunteer Fire Department, one of Norwich's five volunteer departments, is among the fire apparatus moving into place between buildings during a staging and communications fire drill in Norwich on Nov. 15, 2015, that involved several paid and volunteer fire departments from the city and surrounding area. A comprehensive study of Norwich fire services analyzed the city's 49 pieces of fire apparatus, urging equipment reductions and more integrated training among the city's paid and volunteer fire departments, among other recommendations. (Steven Frischling/Special to The Day, FILE)

Norwich fire study apparatus comparison

A McGrath Consulting Group study emphasized that Norwich's one paid and five volunteer fire departments have an excessive amount of apparatus.

Combined, the city's fire services:

- cover 28 square miles
- 40,000 population
- 49 apparatus (43 vehicles and 6 boats with 4 trailers)

 

Comparison of other departments with six fire stations:

A career department in California:

- covers 49 square miles
- 122,000 population
- 34 apparatus

One combined career and volunteer department in Illinois:

- covers 240 square miles
- 7,500 population
- 34 apparatus

One career department in Kentucky:

- covers 21 square miles
- 25,000 population
- 17 apparatus

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