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Controversial Norwich fire services manager ordinance heads to City Council

Norwich — Volunteer fire chiefs, members of the five volunteer fire departments and a few resident taxpayers blasted the proposal to create a fire services director position during the City Council Public Safety Committee meeting Wednesday, calling it unnecessary, expensive and “totally ludicrous.”

The three aldermen on the committee, led by 12-year veteran alderman and former police officer William Nash, shot back, rejecting accusations that the proposed fire services director is political and would undermine the volunteer departments. They said city leaders have tried for years to get the volunteers and paid fire department to cooperate to find cost savings, to no avail.

The committee voted unanimously to forward a favorable recommendation on the ordinance to create the fire services director position but acknowledged that the full City Council should discuss possible changes to the proposal.

The council already has a public hearing scheduled for Monday, June 21, at 7:30 p.m. at City Hall.

Several speakers pointed to the three-alarm fire on Roath Street that destroyed one building and damaged two others Sunday, displacing 21 people — 17 adults and four children — as a strong example of how the departments work “side by side” together in the field.

The fire services director position was among the top recommendations in a 190-page report presented in February by the McGrath Consulting Group, hired to study all aspects of the city’s fire service.

Chiefs on Wednesday told the council committee they have been meeting regularly for the past two months addressing issues in the fire study. They asked for the chance to address the issues in the report on management, cooperation and integration of services and training on their own, rather than with a new fire services director.

Taxpayer and business owner Mike Grillo said he is not a member of any fire service, but as a taxpayer, he did not want to pay for another city department head-level administrator.

Nash announced he is not running for reelection and has no political motivation in handling fire services issues.

“What the hell is anyone talking about with political motivation?” Nash said. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I have no idea what political motive you’re talking about, because I don’t have a political motive on any of this crap.”

He later said the volunteer firefighters might be the ones with political motives, saying they have political clout to campaign against aldermen who do not agree with them, and get them voted out.

Nash said he has served the city of Norwich for 35 years as a police officer and in other city services.

“For decades, you know there’s a problem,” Nash argued. “There’s a problem, guys. It’s not you’re fighting fires. ... I’m going to tell you my truth, the truth of 12 years up here, the truth of 35 years in the city of Norwich. I saw amazing firemen fighting fires, amazing firemen risk their lives to fight a fire.”

But Nash continued that for 12 years he has heard fire chiefs say: “give us a chance, give us a chance,” and “this time” they would do it. But problems persist and nothing changes. Nash agreed the budgeted $140,000 for the fire services director is too high and that the person might be able to work on other non-fire issues after the initial ramping-up period. The city has no assistant city manager.

Committee members, council President Pro Tempore Mark Bettencourt and committee Chairman Alderman Joseph DeLucia argued that the fire services manager is meant to assist all the fire departments, not as a “super chief” at fire scenes but by coordinating services, such as training, equipment, budgets and repairs and upgrades to firehouses.

The fire services study recommended better integrating the departments, with the central city paid department automatically responding to calls in the volunteer departments, and the nearest volunteer department automatically responding to calls within the central city district.

Occum Fire Chief Carroll Spaulding said the position will cost much more than the $140,000 salary budgeted, with benefits, support staff, office space, a city car and phone. Spaulding asked that the idea be put to the voters in a referendum and assured them the volunteer firefighters would turn out to vote. He said the money would better be put in education or to pave streets.

“You did the fire study, you spent money on the fire study and now you’re trying to justify the fire study,” Spaulding said.

c.bessette@theday.com

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