Norwich voters go to the polls Wednesday to vote on fire ordinance
Norwich ― January is not typically the season for passionate campaigns and competing lawn signs, but they are now on display, along with long-standing friction between paid and volunteer fire districts.
Norwich polls will be open from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday for voters to decide whether to keep or reject a controversial ordinance mandating automatic aid between paid and volunteer fire departments. The City Council’s majority ― four Democrats ― passed the ordinance Dec. 5, over loud objections from Republican Mayor Peter Nystrom, two council Republicans and dozens of volunteer firefighters.
The ordinance replaced an administrative policy agreed to by the city’s five volunteer fire chiefs, one paid fire chief and City Manager John Salomone that started Nov. 1. The chiefs agreed to a six-month trial period for the policy to gather data and make adjustments. But volunteer chiefs said they were blindsided by Democratic Council President Pro Tempore Joseph DeLucia’s immediate move to solidify auto-aid in a new ordinance.
Volunteer firefighters crowded council meetings to object and later petitioned for a special election, hoping voters repeal the ordinance. Only registered Norwich voters may vote in the special election, making it different than a referendum.
A “yes” vote tally would keep the ordinance intact, while a “no” result would reject the ordinance and revert to the policy on auto-aid.
Both the ordinance and the administrative policy call for the central city paid fire department to respond automatically into the five volunteer fire districts for calls of structure fires, smoke in buildings and vehicle fires close to structures. Paid crews respond to medical calls in volunteer districts if no volunteer firefighter signs on to respond within five minutes.
The nearest volunteer fire department responds automatically to the same types of fire calls in the city’s paid district to supplement the 13 on-duty firefighters.
All six ― five volunteer and one paid ― fire chiefs support automatic aid, with the controversy centering on DeLucia’s move to submit the ordinance without consulting the chiefs just as the policy was about to start.
The chiefs and Mayor Nystrom have accused DeLucia of forcing the ordinance through while Democrats still held a 4-3 majority, before the departure of newly elected Democratic state Rep. Derell Wilson.
Upon learning of the pending ordinance, volunteer chiefs signed a letter to Salomone Nov. 2 withdrawing support for the auto-aid policy. They quickly reversed and agreed to support it, while still fighting an ordinance.
Auto-aid a yearslong dispute
DeLucia, chairman of the council Public Safety Committee, defended his actions. DeLucia pointed to the fire services study the City Council commissioned, also with a 4-3 Democrats-to-Republicans vote, two years ago that recommended auto-aid to better integrate the paid and volunteer services.
“I don’t feel the ordinance was rushed and the timing was bad,” DeLucia said. “This month marks two years since we got the study, and we’re still fighting over auto-aid. In my mind, it always needed to be an ordinance, so that it is a matter of law in the city, because public safety comes before all these territorial positions.”
Nystrom and Republican Alderwoman Stacy Gould, a volunteer firefighter and fierce opponent of the ordinance, donated to the volunteer firefighters’ political action committee, “Trust Firefighters.” The PAC has paid for radio ads and red lawn signs saying “Trust Your Firefighters. VOTE NO!”
The Democratic Town Committee is backing the ordinance and has paid for a mailing, Facebook ads and lawn signs, “Make Norwich Safe. VOTE YES.”
“By voting YES on this ordinance, you put ‘What’s best for the individual needing help in an emergency’ before everything else,” DTC Vice Chairman Kevin Saythany wrote in a mailing accompanied by an absentee ballot application form. “Without you, none of this will happen.”
But even if the ordinance is defeated, it would not end automatic aid, fire chiefs and City Manager Salomone said last week.
“Absolutely not,” Laurel Hill volunteer Fire Chief Aaron Westervelt said, “I don’t anticipate auto-aid going away ever again.”
Salomone said if the ordinance prevails, he still will meet monthly with all six fire chiefs to discuss how it is working and any changes needed. If voters reject the ordinance, Salomone said the same meetings would discuss the administrative policy still in place.
Taftville Chief Timothy Jencks said leaving those decisions in the hands of the experts is the goal of the “vote no” campaign.
“It takes control of the fire services out of the control of the chiefs and puts it in the hands of the politicians,” Jencks said of the ordinance, “instead of leaving it with the experts.”
Ordinance opponents reject DeLucia’s stance that the ordinance “mirrors” the policy, stressing that the chiefs wrote the policy without political interference.
The incident, not the owner
One objectionable paragraph in the ordinance mandates auto-aid to all city-owned or leased “assets” in volunteer districts, including parks and the golf course, an unnecessary overreach, opponents said. Westervelt said fire response should depend on the incident, not the owner.
Nystrom also has publicly criticized Norwich Fire Chief Tracy Montoya, accusing him of working on the draft ordinance with DeLucia behind the backs of the volunteer chiefs. Nystrom said Montoya betrayed their trust, harming relations going forward.
Montoya disagreed with the mayor’s characterization and said he was only consulted on language of the ordinance as written. Montoya said it was not his place as a city employee to interfere with the political process of communicating a proposed ordinance.
The rancorous campaign has reopened decades-long rifts between Norwich’s paid and volunteer services. Social media posts and callers to the WICH radio talk show have asserted erroneously that the ordinance would spread the central city paid fire tax citywide or would place paid firefighters in the volunteer fire houses. The ordinance and the written policy make no mention of taxes.
Nystrom said auto-aid will cost taxpayers in additional fuel, maintenance and equipment costs. He said the six-month trial period for the policy would quantify those costs, while the ordinance had no cost analysis. Norwich taxpayers citywide pay for equipment and fuel.
DeLucia dismissed cost arguments in the question of improved fire protection. He said the first auto-aid call a week into the Nov. 1 policy proved his point.
At a fire Nov. 8 on Bolduc Lane in the Taftville volunteer district, the city’s Greeneville paid fire crew arrived first and started attacking the fire as Taftville crews were on the way. Together, they quickly extinguished the fire and saved the apartment house, keeping it on the city tax rolls, DeLucia added.
“What did they burn, three gallons of diesel, five gallons of diesel?” DeLucia said. “Was it worth it to save that house?”
Montoya also cited the Bolduc Lane fire as an example of how auto-aid should work. Prior to the auto-aid policy, emergency dispatchers would have called several volunteer departments from Norwich and other towns to a Bolduc Lane fire. The paid Greeneville Engine 2 was not on the run card list.
“Working in coordination with Taftville, they saved a building there that was within risk of being a total loss,” Montoya said. “Without automatic aid, Engine 2 isn’t even there.”
In an email response to an inquiry from The Day, Eric J. George, president of the Insurance Association of Connecticut, said many insurers use a community’s fire protection services as factors to assess risks and determining homeowner insurance rates.
“Many insurers use methodologies that evaluate a community’s ability to prevent and/or suppress fires,” George wrote. “These methodologies are based on thorough calculations of a community’s fire mitigation efforts and the location of that property relative to station response and adequate water resources.”
According to statistics kept by Montoya, during the first 10 weeks of auto-aid from Nov. 1 through Jan. 17, paid firefighters were called 24 times to volunteer districts, including four structure fires, two chimney fires and two outside fires. Eight were retone calls, or second calls put out by dispatchers after not receiving a response within five minutes from volunteer departments, when volunteers were not available, including six medical calls and a gas leak, Montoya said.
Volunteers responded to 12 calls in the paid fire district, three for cooking fires, five smoke in building, and two to request volunteers to cover the city for other calls, Montoya said.
Volunteer chiefs cited the early auto-aid experiences as reasons the administrative policy is better than an ordinance. Volunteer chiefs complained they were being called repeatedly for auto-aid to minor incidents, such as burnt food, only to be turned away while on the road. Salomone and the chiefs adjusted in December to remove “food on the stove” calls from auto-aid.
“Auto-aid is not going to go away,” Laurel Hill Chief Westervelt said. “We want the ability to control the auto-aid, and not someone who has no experience doing it.”
Norwich polling places for Feb. 1 special election
Precinct 1: Norwich Worship Center, 165 Lawler Lane
Precinct 2: Rose City Senior Center, 8 Mahan Drive
Precinct 3: Norwichtown Congregational Church, 81 East Town St.
Precinct 4: Beth Jacob Synagogue, 400 New London Turnpike
Precinct 5: St. Mark Lutheran Church Hall, 248 Broadway
Precinct 6: AHEPA - 110 Community Room , 370 Hamilton Ave.