A HEATED DEBATE Career firefighters clash with volunteers over staffing, training
this was in todays Stamford Advocate: www.stamfordadvocate.com
March 4, 2007
STAMFORD - A firefighter with Long Ridge Fire Co. who complained to the state that he sometimes handles calls alone has raised questions about whether Stamford has adequate fire protection in all districts.
The questions center on the five volunteer departments, which are autonomous under the city Charter and have their own ways of staffing their firehouses and responding to calls.
Now, some city officials say they want to examine whether Stamford should set up more uniform practices of response and coverage.
Volunteer firefighters say they save the city money and do not need supervision from the city - just enough money to do their jobs and run their fire stations.
Career firefighters say volunteers are not dependable and establishing a central command would improve service citywide.
As Stamford develops and its population grows, fire service must adjust, city officials say. But neither city nor state government has authority over volunteer companies, and information on how they operate seems to be lacking.
"I don't want to play politics when it comes to people's safety," said city Rep. Scott Mirkin, R-13, whose district is served by the Turn of River and Long Ridge volunteer fire departments. "The mayor, as CEO of the city, has a responsibility to make sure that all constituents have the proper service."
Mayor Dannel Malloy said he has asked for $50,000 in the upcoming budget to study whether the city-run Stamford Fire & Rescue and the five volunteer fire departments have the staff, equipment and resources to protect the city.
"I can't imagine anyone would sit down in 2007 and design the city fire coverage the way the city has it," Malloy said. "They wouldn't do it because it doesn't make sense economically, coverage-wise."
The study, and statistics and training information that each fire department was asked to submit last month to the Department of Public Safety, Health and Welfare, would provide the most up-to-date overview of the system in more than a decade, department Director William Callion said.
"I'll have the best view of what our firefighting capabilities are by fire district that we've ever had," Callion said.
Asked by The Advocate over the last several weeks for the number of volunteers, status of their training, medical exams and certification, number of calls handled by each firehouse, number of structure fires and response times, Callion could not provide the information. He said his department does not keep it.
Callion said he repeatedly has asked for that information from the volunteer departments but has never received it.
"I don't know how many people are available for an emergency. I don't know if those who are available are truly prepared to be involved in an emergency. I don't know if they've been trained," he said.
Callion said his only glimpse into how volunteer companies operate is from annual audits requested by the Board of Finance, but they provide only basic information.
"The oversight, to the extent legally allowed by law, falls in my office," Callion said, but the volunteer departments "are responsible for managing the operation. We provide the funding, but we don't have the authority or the oversight."
He gave all fire departments a Feb. 27 deadline for submitting documentation about certification, training and equipment. By Thursday, Callion had received information from Stamford Fire & Rescue but nothing from any of the volunteer fire departments. Volunteer chiefs say their departments are the foundation of the city's fire protection service and said interference from the city could mean a loss of identity and control.
"If the city is going to give volunteers funding, then let us run it and then it would be successful," said Shawn Fahan, chief of the Springdale Volunteer Fire Co. "We all live within a reasonable distance. During the daytime, if there is a real serious issue, we can all leave our jobs to come to the firehouse. These departments are top-notch. I'm not just saying that because I'm the chief. I just think that we're underfunded, which makes us understaffed."
The volunteer departments are all staffed by paid firefighters as well as volunteers. Firefighters for four of the departments are on the city payroll. Long Ridge Fire Co. uses city finds to hire its own staff.
This fiscal year, the city allocated $5.8 million for operating expenses and salaries to the five volunteer departments.
Among the data the city lacks are statistics on the length of time it takes firefighters - paid or volunteer - to respond to emergencies.
The National Fire Protection Association, which sets firefighting codes and standards in the United States, says career firefighters should reach an emergency scene in six minutes 90 percent of the time. Volunteers in a city the size of Stamford should get there in nine minutes 90 percent of the time.
The likelihood that someone will die or be injured is significantly greater when fire spreads beyond the room of origin, which takes about eight minutes, said Lorraine Carli, association spokeswoman.
When asked, the city could not provide an average response time. Callion said city and fire officials have reviewed departments' response times and said it has not been an issue.
"We have done some analysis from time to time, and most of the time we have a general idea," he said. "Response time is a fairly complex thing."
Glancing from a daily incident log Wednesday, Stamford Fire Chief Robert McGrath said that citywide, departments averaged three to four minutes. He said he was not familiar with the national average, or whether there was a difference between career firefighter and volunteer firefighter response times.
"We look at our runs on a frequent basis," McGrath said. "In rural areas, response times are much higher. In this city, you're going to get help on the average of three minutes, obviously if you're way, way up on the New York state line it will take longer."
Coverage at the scene
Uniform response and coverage is needed, particularly in North Stamford, where two volunteer departments cover about 28 square miles - more than half the city, said Brendan Keatley, president of the paid firefighters union.
"Fires don't burn differently based on your address," Keatley said. "There should be a standard and consistent level of staffing citywide and there is not. We're seeing an increasing reliance on mutual aid, which requires a large number of our folks sent up there."
The independent departments' ability to supply adequate staff at an emergency scene is at the heart of the Long Ridge firefighter's complaint, and is a concern echoed within the city about all the volunteer departments.
As part of his complaint to the state Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Donald Berg said the department violates a federal standard that requires two equally equipped and trained firefighters at the scene for every two who enter a burning building or other hazardous situation. The standard is known as "two in, two out."
Though OSHA fined Long Ridge $1,080 for failing to test firefighters for breathing masks, documenting medical exams and providing hazardous materials training, it did not address staffing because it has no jurisdiction over that.
Berg said he often drives a fire engine alone to a scene, waiting several minutes for a second engine, volunteers and Long Ridge's backup department, Turn of River Fire Department, to arrive.
"I respond by myself, but the city responds with at least four people," said Berg, referencing Stamford Fire & Rescue's manpower on an engine. "Why am I less important? Why is my safety less important? It's a ticking time bomb."
For more than a decade, firefighters at Long Ridge have said the department is ill-staffed to serve the 3,500 residences of North Stamford.
In 1996, the department filed a lawsuit against the city after Malloy staffed Long Ridge with 16 paid firefighters from Stamford Fire & Rescue and threatened to terminate the funding for the volunteer company. A judge ruled in Long Ridge's favor and ordered the city to remove the firefighters and continue to fund the department.
Carl Peterson, assistant director of public fire protection for the National Fire Protection Association, said failing to comply with the two-in, two-out standard and inadequate staffing jeopardize the safety of firefighters and residents.
"The problem is that one firefighter gets in there and gets in trouble. No one knows he's in there and no one's around to assist him," Peterson said. "In those situations, they really have to face reality. They are not a fire department."
Belltown, Turn of River, Glenbrook and Springdale volunteer chiefs said they meet the two-in, two-out standard. They respond with two or three men on an engine - mostly paid firefighters - and rely heavily on volunteers and backup from other fire departments, volunteer chiefs said. Most volunteer chiefs agree that the number of firefighters is not where it should be but say they've got residents' safety covered.
Belltown Fire Department Chief John Didelot said his district is built out, and he doesn't worry about an increase in development or population.
"It's working the way it is," Didelot said.
Volunteer chiefs said the need for manpower varies from district to district, depending on population density and number of calls.
But McGrath said it's more complicated. Even though North Stamford, for example, has fewer residents per square mile, there are fewer hydrants, so more manpower is needed to operate tanker trucks and set up water supplies, he said.
"You can rely on backup, but when you get weather with black ice, it's difficult to get people there in a timely fashion. Weather is a big part of it and traffic is a big part of it," McGrath said. "I'm certainly not going to speak for them or against them. I have no say in what they do. I have no say in their training. They make their own guidelines."
In most cases nationwide, no government agency has authority over volunteer fire companies.
"Nothing's going to happen until probably someone gets hurt. Then you have OSHA investigating," Peterson said.
In Long Island, N.Y., elected officials are questioning the largely volunteer fire protection system after several people died in two fires in January and February. Slow response times were cited as contributing factors. Officials who questioned the system found there is little oversight of volunteer fire companies by town, county or state government, and they met significant opposition from volunteers who do not want to change the system.
Long Ridge volunteer Chief Robert Bennett said his staff of 10 paid firefighters and 30 active volunteers can handle the workload but said he could use more professional staff. At its headquarters station on Old Long Ridge Road, two paid firefighters work a day shift and one works at night. At the second station on High Ridge Road, one firefighter works a 24-hour shift.
"If I slipped and fell on the floor, I could lay here till the next morning," Berg said of the solo shift.
When a call comes in, an engine from each station is dispatched and volunteers are paged, Bennett said. At least five volunteers show up on average, he said. Long Ridge gets about 800 calls a year, Bennett said.
"We'll do the best we can with what we got, and right now it's one and one," he said, referring to one engine responding from each station.
"We constantly ask for an upgrade in personnel," he said. "And I'm just telling you what the city can afford, and I guess they feel they cannot justify it with only 800 calls a year."
Stamford Fire & Rescue, which gets about 7,800 calls a year, responds with a minimum of four firefighters per engine and a minimum of 22 firefighters for serious calls, fire officials said.
"We would never operate that way, for sheer obvious reasons," Stamford Fire & Rescue Assistant Fire Chief John McCabe said. "You just can't handle a situation with two men and two engines."
Berg said things can get hairy when he arrives at a scene alone. He said he often has to wait three or four minutes for other firefighters to arrive.
"I don't know who's coming from where," Berg said, and in the meantime, "you're a one-man show. You're trying to call somebody on the radio, you're trying to tell people what's going on."
About two years ago, he said he responded to a call about a man with chest pains.
"His wife and daughter were there, and I was by myself trying to bring the guy back," Berg said.
Last month, Berg responded to a call on McIntosh Road about a man who had fallen. No backup arrived, Berg said.
The man and his wife are senior citizens who asked to remain anonymous. The woman said she was surprised that only one firefighter arrived.
"I thought they always went in pairs," she said. "We wondered if he would be able to get (my husband) up. If he had broken something, it could have been dangerous."
Her husband had fallen once before and three firefighters showed up, she said.
"We pay a lot of taxes up here, and it's important that these places are staffed," she said.
Turn of River firehouse backs up Long Ridge on structure fires and other serious calls, but not all medical calls.
Turn of River, which answers 2,100 calls a year, has 17 paid firefighters and at least 35 active volunteers. They adhere to the two-in, two-out standard, Turn of River fire Chief Ray Whitbread said.
All six fire chiefs meet monthly, he said.
"We keep in close touch with each other," he said.
Volunteer fire departments help the city by saving money in firefighter salaries and benefits, Bennett said. They fundraise and apply for grants to supplement operating expenses. He said Long Ridge Fire Co. has saved the city about $300,000 in the last four years by applying for state and federal grants.
Nationwide, volunteer firefighters save municipalities $37.2 billion a year, said Kimberly Ettinger, spokeswoman for the National Volunteer Fire Council, though recruitment and retention of volunteers is a problem. Historically, volunteer and career departments clash, Ettinger said.
"I think it's a political thing - the culture of the career firefighter versus the culture of the volunteer. There's maybe some mistrust between the groups and that creates some friction," she said. "Volunteers perceive career departments as trying to take over."
Keatley said volunteers and career firefighters can work together, but standards should be the same because if something tragic happens, the city holds the greatest liability.
"They try to do the best they can," Keatley said of the volunteers. But that's not enough at a fire. "You go out to a scene. You don't know who these people are, and you don't know what their level of training is."
Looking to the future
Only the Board of Representatives can change the city Charter with a two-thirds vote. Under the city Charter, Stamford Fire & Rescue has no authority over the volunteer departments. Attempts within the last 10 years to change that have failed.
Springdale volunteer fire chief Fahan said volunteers make a significant contribution and should retain their autonomy.
"These chiefs and volunteers really have their heart into it," he said. "It's not just a job to us. We're doing it for public safety."
Egos shouldn't get in the way of improving the system, said Mirkin, the city representative.
"The people, ultimately, that potentially suffer are the people in the district," he said.
Callion and Malloy said they hope to start the study this summer. It will examine growth of the city, distribution of fire stations and preparedness for disasters. Malloy said it's time for city officials and volunteer chiefs to work together to improve the system.
"Do we have the political will to get the job done?" Malloy said. "Are we prepared to have a level of discussion that is based on public safety and finance, and less about territory? I think that's the question we need to ask."
- Assistant City Editor Angela Carella contributed to this story.
Copyright © 2007, Southern Connecticut Newspapers, Inc.