STAMFORD, Conn. — Volunteer fire chiefs said they didn’t get the call when a Category 1 hurricane walloped Stamford earlier this week.
Public safety and health officials from across the state participated in an emergency preparedness drill designed to test municipalities’ ability to respond to hurricanes Monday morning. About 20 officials attended Stamford’s exercise at the Government Center, but the city’s volunteer fire chiefs said they weren’t given seats at the table.
“I didn’t know anything about it until I read the paper this morning,” said Springdale Volunteer Fire Department Chief Shawn Fahan. “Our department has been through many hurricanes and storms. But it doesn’t hurt to sit in on these things to learn a little bit.”
The perceived slight comes at a delicate time for Stamford’s long-fractured fire services. The city is embroiled in lawsuits with two volunteer departments — Springdale and Long Ridge — and is still struggling to consolidate all companies into one department in accordance with the 2012 charter revision.
Mayor David Martin, who took office Dec. 1, has described merging the city’s career and volunteer fire services as one of his top priorities. But tensions between the city’s career and volunteer firefighters remain high.
“To find out about (Monday’s exercise) by reading about it in the Advocate I consider almost like a slap in the face,” Long Ridge Fire Company Chief Stuart Teitelbaum said. “We’re still having discussions to finalize how we’re going to work together, and this doesn’t help anything. Hopefully in the future the city will at least let the chiefs know.”
Fire Chief Peter Brown, appointed by Martin to lead the consolidated department, said Tuesday it was not his intention to snub the volunteers.
“It was nothing done intentionally,” Brown said. “I just felt that it was a whole-day event, and it was something that I would cover and keep them apprised of it. There’s no animosity; there’s no hard feelings.”
Belltown Fire Department Chief John Didelot said volunteer firefighters are the first line of defense for many Stamford citizens during emergencies, and it’s important that they are afforded every training opportunity.
“We should be part of the training, or at least know about it so we can have a choice about attending,” Didelot said. “We are the people that are going to be responding to your home to help you.”
Didelot and Brown both said communication between the city’s career and volunteer fire services needs improvement. A key part of that is hiring an assistant chief of volunteer services, a position that was created under the 2012 Charter revision but remains vacant.
“(Hiring the assistant chief) requires cooperation from everybody,” Brown said. “And that person will bridge that communications gap.”
The 2012 charter revision empowers Stamford’s fire chief to hire a volunteer assistant chief off a list of three applicants submitted by the volunteer fire chiefs. On Monday, Brown said he is still waiting for the volunteer chiefs to send him names of potential candidates after two applicants previously submitted withdrew from consideration.
Didelot said the volunteers are working on selecting candidates for Brown’s consideration. He said he hopes the assistant chief for volunteer services will be an effective liaison between the city and volunteer firefighters.
“That person should be our eyes and ears,” he said.
Volunteer fire department representatives have participated in Stamford’s emergency management drills in the past. In 2012, Turn of River volunteer firefighter Nicholas Jossem sat with then-Fire Chief Antonio Conte during a statewide exercise similar to the one conducted Monday.
Public Safety Director Ted Jankowski said the volunteers were represented by Brown and Assistant Fire Chief Trevor Roach at Monday’s event.
“I know the true value of the volunteer fire departments in times of disaster as I have seen their dedication and professionalism first hand,” Jankowski said in an email. “Fire Chief Brown will be providing a summary of the State Exercise to be disseminated to all units.”
Glenbrook Volunteer Fire Chief Eddie Velez said he is not offended that his department was not invited to Monday’s drill.
“I know sometimes I’ve been invited in the past and I’m not sure what happened yesterday,” Velez said. “But I figured the other chiefs would pass the information down anyway.”
Turn of River Volunteer Fire Chief Frank Jacobellis could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
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