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    Friday, January 27, 2023

    Proposed Norwich fire services ordinances debated

    Norwich ― Volunteer firefighters repeated their opposition Monday night to two proposed ordinances they argued would erode the volunteer system and foster an effort to spread the central city paid fire tax citywide.

    But other residents supported the ordinance as a public safety measure during a public hearing by the City Council Monday. One ordinance would call for automatic aid from the city paid department to structure fires in the volunteer districts and for volunteer departments to respond to city structure fires. The second ordinance would call for a uniform purchasing system for all fire equipment.

    The City Council is set to vote on the ordinances at its Dec. 5 meeting. Last week, the Public Safety Committee heard public comments for an hour ― all against the ordinances, many speakers angry ― before the committee voted 2-1 to send a favorable recommendation to the full council.

    Speakers were more cordial to the full council Monday.

    Volunteer firefighters and their supporters on Monday again complained that the ordinances blindsided them just as the five volunteer departments and the city’s paid department reached an agreement with City Manager John Salomone to try the so-called auto-aid plan for six months to gather data on how it works. The agreement was to start Nov.1, but the five volunteer chiefs officially sent a letter withdrawing support for the agreement almost immediately.

    Paid Fire Chief Tracy Montoya spoke in favor of the auto-aid ordinance but said not the way the ordinance was presented. He said the chiefs and Salomone worked hard on the proposed agreement, which he called “pretty valuable.” Montoya said the ordinance contained much of the language in the agreement.

    Despite the opposition, Montoya said the auto-aid policy was implemented and was used for the Nov. 8 apartment house fire in Taftville. Montoya said paid firefighters responded. He said the results could have been different for the home’s residents without the quick response.

    Yantic volunteer Fire Chief Bill Eyberse said the proposed ordinance “is not a mirror image” of the chiefs’ agreement on auto-aid. He said it is close but complained that the ordinance surprised the volunteer chiefs. He urged the council to consider both sides of the arguments.

    Eyberse and Taftville volunteer Fire Chief Timothy Jencks both said they are not against automatic aid. But he said the chiefs raised valid concerns about safety risks of putting more firefighters on the road for calls when they might not be needed, the additional wear and tear on equipment and potential costs.

    Jencks said the chiefs did sign the letter withdrawing from auto-aid, but they did agree at a meeting to leave it in place on a trial basis.

    Jencks continued to say that the second ordinance also could be problematic. He said standardizing equipment purchases could lead to the need for expensive alterations to the five volunteer fire stations, as they all are different sizes with space constraints.

    Robert Aldi, chairman of the Board of Education, said the “rivalry” between the paid and volunteer fire departments in Norwich has been going on as long as the Norwich Free Academy-New London High School football game.

    Aldi said the 2021 fire services study pointed out some of the problems with the current system, including statements that some fire chiefs did not believe they fell under the authority of the city manager.

    Laurel Hill Fire Chief Aaron Westervelt said the ordinance was written “in bad faith” after the chiefs worked out the auto-aid agreement after 10 months of discussions. He said City Council members wrote the ordinance “behind the backs” of the fire chiefs. Instead, aldermen should have brought the ordinance idea to the chiefs for discussion.

    He said automatic aid continues, and volunteers continue to respond to city calls. He said he has been on the road for calls that are then canceled.

    Former Alderman Mark Bettencourt, past member of the council Public Safety Committee, supported the ordinance, acknowledging that communication between the council and the chiefs could have been better. Bettencourt said all parties should put public safety first.

    “If you think it will enhance public safety, you should support it,” Bettencourt said. “If not, you should not support it. I personally think it will be an enhancement to public safety.”

    c.bessette@theday.com

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