Sept. 18--GROTON -- Poquonnock Bridge Fire Department Chief Todd Paige said he feels like someone handed him a box of broken parts and he's got to put them back together.
How did it get so bad? How did a relatively small fire district wind up on the verge of bankruptcy, paying lawyers, fighting with the union and contemplating closing a firehouse and laying off firefighters?
"People are just stomping all over other people trying to get what they want," Fire District board member Deb Monteiro said recently. "No one is thinking about where is this going to lead us later on. No one has any respect or any consideration for anyone else in this process."
Last week, district board President Alan Ackley wrote a letter to the state's attorney general and an acting undersecretary at the Office of Policy and Management, saying the district is in financial crisis and asking for assistance. In it, Ackley explained what led to the problems.
All sides now await a response from the governor's administration.
In the meantime, Paige, who's been with the district 27 years, chief for 12, distributed two proposals to deal with the district's worsening finances. He developed them at the board's request, to spell out what it would have to do to make the voter-approved budget of $3.5 million last until the end of the fiscal year.
One proposal would lay off nine firefighters and the fire marshal's clerk, eliminate the fire inspector position, close one of the district's two fire stations at 13 Fort Hill Road and eliminate the fund balance. The other effectively would shutter the district's firefighting operations.
Monteiro said getting state help and checking the possibility of bankruptcy filing take time "and we don't have a lot of time."
The fire district is already halfway through the 30-day waiting period imposed by the State Board of Labor Relations, which ordered it to honor a 10-year contract with firefighters and its annual raises of 3 percent and other benefits.
The district is challenging that ruling, Monteiro said, but there's no guarantee the court will grant a stay.
"People need to know that we're in a crisis here," she said.
Paige said at a meeting earlier this year that Poquonnock Bridge firefighters have saved several lives in the last year.
One was Richard Blazer's late wife.
On April 23, Blazer said, he dialed 911 from his house on Laurelwood Road. His wife had called to him but as soon as he got to her, she fell back against the wall, unconscious.
She had congestive heart failure and told him her back hurt right before she passed out. So he started CPR himself. He's 75.
Police and firefighters from Poquonnock Bridge arrived within minutes and took over, he said. Blazer said he has called 911 about 10 times during the five years that his wife was sick, and most of the time, firefighters were first to arrive.
His wife, Elizabeth McAvoy, 74, survived only a few days after his last call. But Blazer said he's grateful for firefighters' quick response.
"When you need the fire department, you need them right now," he said.
Monteiro said she hopes people realize what problems in a fire district potentially mean.
"You can't rely on mutual aid to serve an entire district as large as this," she said. "You can't rely on mutual aid to get there in the time you need them to save a life or keep a structure from being fully involved. This is craziness."
Fight for control
Poquonnock Bridge Fire District covers 12 square miles, including the densely populated Fort Hill neighborhood; the commercial district along Route 1; the Mystic Marriott, Groton's third largest taxpayer; and the majority of town-owned buildings including Town Hall, the police station, Groton Public Library, Groton Senior Center and Fitch High School.
Like many fire districts, Poquonnock Bridge was created years ago as a municipal corporation to fight fires. A special meeting established the district in 1943. A reorganization, to comply with state law, left the district with a five-member board of directors and four officers elected yearly at an annual meeting.