Norwich voters defeat fire services ordinance
Norwich – A dogged campaign by volunteer firefighters was successful Wednesday as voters soundly rejected a controversial ordinance passed in December that governs automatic aid between the city’s paid and volunteer fire departments.
Voters rejected the ordinance 2,347-676. Turnout was more than 13%, with the highest turnout in precincts that encompass much of the Taftville and East Great Plain volunteer fire districts.
But the result changes little for firefighters, as automatic aid reverts to a Nov. 1 administrative policy worked out by the five volunteer chiefs, the one city paid fire chief and City Manager John Salomone.
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.
The volunteer fire chiefs stressed throughout their campaign against the ordinance that they agreed to try the administrative policy for six months, and said that initial period was meant to gain experience and “tweak” the policy to make improvements.
Mayor Peter Nystrom, a staunch opponent of the ordinance, called it a good turnout for a Wednesday special election in February.
“I’m very, very pleased with the support for our fire chiefs and their members,” Nystrom said after the polls closed. “It’s tough to get this turnout on a Wednesday in February.”
Taftville Volunteer Fire Chief Timothy Jencks said the fire departments will now continue on with the original agreement and make changes as needed going forward.
Angered at Democratic City Council President Joseph DeLucia for introducing the ordinance in late October, just as the new administrative policy was set to take place, volunteer firefighters launched a petition drive allowed in the city charter to force a vote on the ordinance. The City Council’s majority four Democrats had approved the ordinance Dec. 5, with all three Republicans voting against it.
DeLucia, chairman of the council public safety committee, released a written statement about the results of the vote, thanking supporters and pledging to continue to support automatic aid in the fire services.
“It is disappointing that the ordinance did not withstand the vote,” DeLucia wrote. “It is my sincere hope that the opponents of the ordinance will keep their word to you, the citizens, that Automatic-Aid will permanently remain the policy of the Norwich Fire Service, and to work with the City Manager to craft an ordinance of their own.
Volunteer firefighters and their supporters, including Nystrom campaigned door to door, on radio talk shows and with signs and door hangers urging voters to “trust your firefighters” and vote “no” to defeat the ordinance. They stressed that fire services policies should be left to the “experts,” chastising DeLucia for submitting the ordinance without input from the volunteer chiefs.
Salomone said instead of waiting until May to make changes, the chiefs decided to make necessary adjustments “on the fly” based on experience.
“The chiefs and I worked on automatic aid for quite few months prior to Nov. 1,” Salomone said Wednesday. “I’ve talked to many of the chiefs, and I think we all agree we’re going to continue automatic aid. It’s been working very well. … I’m going to be proceeding post-election with automatic aid. We all agreed to it.”