Conn. volunteers criticize rule barring single-firefighter staffing at firehouses
An arbitration panel ruled that Montville must staff at least two of its four fire departments with two paid firefighters, and that no firefighter can work alone during a 24-hour shift
By Daniel Drainville
MONTVILLE, Conn. — An arbitration panel has unanimously ruled that the town must staff at least two of its four fire departments with two paid firefighters and that no firefighter can work alone during a 24-hour shift.
In addition, the town cannot staff additional stations unless two firefighters are on duty, according to the arbitration award.
The decision has been criticized by volunteer firefighters, who say the ruling will increase response times and put the safety of residents at risk because two stations would be left uncovered if the other two stations must have two paid firefighters.
Chesterfield Fire Department Chief Keith Truex said all four Montville fire chiefs wanted to leave the system the way it was. He said he is worried the new rules will create gaps in the town's coverage because there's just not enough firefighters to keep all four stations open at all times.
For example, Truex said there could be a day when the Montville and Oakdale fire departments were staffed under the new guidelines leaving his department and the Mohegan departments empty.
"It usually takes between 5 and 7 minutes to go from [the Chesterfield Dept.] to Holmes Road," Truex said. "If you respond from Oakdale it'll take between 9 and 13 minutes to get there."
"The town is rolling the dice on whether or not my house catches on fire," Truex said.
All four fire stations; Montville, Mohegan, Oakdale, and Chesterfield, are owned and operated by volunteer fire companies but are staffed with paid firefighters employed by the town. The first three are staffed with one firefighter at all times, while the last, Chesterfield, is staffed with one paid firefighter Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. to about 3:30 pm.
When there's an emergency, the nearest department sends their career firefighter to respond. If they arrive and find it's a fire, they will set up their equipment, report in and call for any necessary backup. Sometimes, backup is called immediately upon notification of an emergency, Truex said.
Firefighters from the other departments or other towns, whoever is closest, will then arrive with additional equipment, Truex said.
Having someone at the scene can help while other firefighters are on the way, Truex said. He believes there are reasons to have each fire department staffed, even if it's only one person.
"They can set the whole truck up," he said. "They can make an emergency rescue if necessary."
However, one of the crucial pieces of evidence that led the panel to rule in favor of the union was a public safety plan commissioned by the town which disagreed with the chief's position.
"Today, when there is a call for service, the closest fire company ambulance responds, most of the time with one career firefighter, then an additional career firefighter responds in a utility vehicle from another fire company," the study said. "The two personnel meet at the scene, treat and transport the patient, return to the town from the hospital, retrieve the utility vehicle and return to their stations. There are many risks and faults with this method of response."
"The report not only makes the Union's case, but answers the Town's objections," the arbitration award read.
Under the new staffing constraints there will be two departments staffed at a given time as opposed to the usual four, said Mayor Ron McDaniel and firefighters' union President Timothy Condon.
They maintain that the new rule will improve public safety.
Condon and McDaniel maintain what many, including the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, say is the safer approach: that an emergency call cannot be properly responded to by a single person, no matter how skilled they are.
"This award puts four rescuers guaranteed on the clock. That means that the Town of Montville has a guaranteed two ambulance crews. It also brings them closer into alliance of OSHA two-in-two out and [National Fire Protection Association] codes and standards," Condon said.
OSHA has a rule called "two-in, two-out" that requires that at least two employees enter the "Immediately Dangerous to Life or Health" atmosphere and remain in visual or voice contact with each other at all times. It also requires that at least two employees be located outside the atmosphere, thus the term, "two in/two out."
Condon and the union maintains that even if all four fire departments were to remain open, lone firefighters would simply not have the means to combat those emergencies. They say that a response time is not simply how fast a piece of equipment, apparatus or even a person, gets to the scene.
"The response time ends when you have enough people on scene to effectively mitigate the emergency, not when the first truck rolls up," Condon added.
In March of last year, with the impending expiration of the old collective bargaining agreement between the paid firefighters, known collectively as International Association of Fire Fighters Local 3386, and the Town of Montville, the two parties sat down to work on a new contract, according to the arbitration award.
The Town Council has until Aug. 8 to reject the arbitrator's decision by a two-thirds vote. If they choose not to reject it, the new CBA would be approved, including these new rules for daily fire operations. If they reject it, it is unclear what the next step would be.