Fire police celebrate new law, with local roots, that expands first responder protections
Ledyard — Fire department volunteers, fire police and U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, gathered in the Gales Ferry firehouse Thursday to celebrate a new law that protects fire police — a mostly volunteer cohort who protect first responders on emergency scenes — in the event of serious injury or death in the line of duty.
More than 10 years ago, a volunteer member of the fire department in Gales Ferry leapt over a guardrail to avoid an oncoming car while he was securing the scene of a late-night car crash. It made Anthony Saccone, chief of the Gales Ferry Volunteer Fire Company, think about what would have happened if the man had been seriously hurt that night — would he have been protected? Would his family?
The volunteer was serving as a member of the fire police division that night. Nationwide, fire police are mostly volunteer members of fire departments who take on the risky job of securing the scene of fires, motor vehicle accidents and other emergencies by setting up perimeters and directing traffic.
Saccone learned that under the Public Safety Officers Benefits Program, fire police weren't protected with the same benefits that firefighters and other first responders receive if they suffer serious injury, or even death, on the job.
For 10 years, Saccone has advocated to change that. And with the help of Courtney, pushed Congress to revamp protections under the PSOB program. On Nov. 18, 2021, Saccone stood beside President Joe Biden as he signed into law the Protecting America's First Responders Act, which expanded protections for first responders and folded fire police into the program.
The law improves the benefit program for first responders by now including fire police; increasing benefits for first responders who suffer serious injuries; and improving protections for their family members in the event of their death.
Courtney on Thursday joined Saccone, volunteer fire police from the Gales Ferry department and members of the Connecticut Fire Police Association for a celebratory ceremony at the Gales Ferry firehouse at 1772 Route 12. Courtney presented Saccone with an embossed copy of the signed bill and photos of Saccone with President Biden during the bill-signing ceremony, lauding him for his persistent efforts to protect fire police in his community and across the country.
Courtney said Saccone, and other folks from fire departments right here in southeastern Connecticut, made him aware of the gap in protections and helped him close it.
"This law really emanated from this room," said Courtney in the bay of the firehouse. The congressman said the law, which will protect fire police and their families all across the nation, came from Gales Ferry grassroots and shows how our democratic system can still work to protect its people — even if it took a decade.
"It's really exciting to hear about things happening on a national scale that started right here in our little community. It shows that it can start at the lowest level of grassroots and prompt something of national importance, you've just got to fight for it all the way through," Saccone said.
Chief of the Connecticut Fire Police Association Chip Carpenter said the role of the fire police is an important but dangerous one.
"We are here to protect the first responders: we protect the scene and we protect everybody that's on it, including the public," Carpenter said. "Usually, we're the first to arrive and the last to leave."
Fire police allow other first responders to focus on their responsibilities during an emergency — EMTs focus on treating patients; firefighters focus on extracting injured people from vehicles or extinguishing fires; tow truck drivers focus on securing vehicles; police focus on investigating a scene. And while they do, fire police focus on protecting them.
Bob Heal, lieutenant for the Gales Ferry Fire Company and coordinator for the Connecticut Fire Police Association Region 4, which covers the eastern part of the state, said while the region luckily hasn't seen any serious injuries to fire police, there have been many instances across the state and country when their lives have been on the line.
Matthiew Otis, a coordinator for the Fire Police Association in Litchfield County, said the new protections mean a lot to fire police who step into dangerous situations every day.
"As fire police, we're the barrier between the public and the first responder. And even though we're the barrier for them, there was no barrier for us," he said. "Now with this law, we're protected."
Saccone said fire police often are overlooked even though their work "is just as important and critical" as those who are battling flames directly.
"It feels rewarding because of what the bill stands for — supporting first responders, particularly fire policemen whose work has been overlooked for decades," he said. "The passing of the bill reinforces America's commitment to their front-line responders."
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