Conn. chiefs scolded for drills with sirens, lights


By Neil Vigdor
The Connecticut Post Online

GREENWICH, Conn. — Both the fire chief and assistant fire chief have been reprimanded by First Selectman Peter Tesei for their role in planning recent drills in which fire trucks went out on mock calls with their lights and sirens activated to collect response-time information.

Chief Peter Siecienski and Assistant Chief Robert Kick received a verbal rebuke last week about public safety risks involved in sending fire trucks out on non-emergency calls, said Tesei, who serves as fire and police commissioner.

Firefighters were instructed to see how far they could get from all seven of the town's stations in four minutes, a nationally recognized standard for response times.

"I don't think it's wise to jeopardize the safety of the firefighters and the safety of the general public by engaging in such an initiative," Tesei said. "There was evidently an error in judgment."

Siecienski accepted responsibility for the drills, who took place April 22-23.

"Sometimes, we make mistakes. We acknowledge that," Siecienski said.

A message was left Friday for Kick, who gave the direct order to firefighters to conduct the drills.

Siecienski said that the drills were done in a controlled fashion with firefighters instructed to stop at intersections and not take any unnecessary risks.

"These guys weren't out there running around like cowboys," Siecienski said.

Tesei also said there was a lack of proper communication between the different public safety departments on the drills, with police initially OK'ing the exercises after an informal call from fire brass and later putting the clamps on the activity because of safety and liability concerns.

"Think about what's involved," Tesei said. "You're undertaking what I would call a beta test and you're deploying apparatus with personnel. I think it would be important for the other public safety services to know that this was a drill, not a live action."

Police Chief David Ridberg said that a member of his department mistakenly gave his blessing to the drills when contacted by a counterpart in the fire department. It was later that Ridberg said police advised against the activity, telling fire brass that lights and sirens should only be used for bona fide emergencies.

"They asked for some guidance and we didn't give them a good answer," Ridberg said. "We won't repeat it."

Since the drills were first reported by Greenwich Time on Tuesday, the story has gained national attention in firefighting circles.

The national Web site Firehouse.com led with the story on Thursday. The Daily Dispatch of the New England Division of The International Association of Fire Chiefs also referenced the drills.

Brian Goss, the assistant fire chief in Brentwood, Tenn., was so shocked to read about the story that he sent an e-mail to Greenwich Time expressing his outrage.

"More firefighters are killed annually responding to and from incidents than are killed by traumatic injury on the fireground," Goss wrote. "Sending apparatus out lights and sirens to a mock emergency is analogous to a game of Russian roulette. Irresponsible and dangerous."

While he hadn't heard of the story, Bob Barr, a fire protection engineer with the Phoenix Fire Department in Arizona and former consultant to many municipalities on emergency response times, said the practice raises questions.

"I don't know of anybody that does it," Barr said. "We would all consider it too risky both to our individual (firefighter) members and the public to do those types of things."

The one exception that Barr said he could think as suitable for such an exercise would be at airports when the runways and taxiways are clear.

"Just from my standpoint, there is a great deal of risk involved in doing trial runs or mock runs," Barr said.

Barr pointed out that a Houston woman on a bicycle was crushed to death earlier this month by a fire truck that was broadsided by another fire truck on its way to a fire alarm that didn't turn out to be an emergency. The truck ran a red light and the driver was cited.

Greenwich Police commented that the practice of sending fire trucks out with their lights and sirens on -- known in public safety circles as a Code 20 -- in non-emergencies appears to violate a state law.

According to Section 14-283 of the Connecticut General Statutes, an emergency vehicle is defined as "any ambulance or emergency medical service organization vehicle responding to an emergency call, any vehicle used by a fire department or by any officer of a fire department while on the way to a fire or while responding to an emergency call but not while returning from a fire or emergency call, or any state or local police vehicle operated by a police officer or inspector of the Department of Motor Vehicles answering an emergency call or in the pursuit of fleeing law violators."

Connecticut State Fire Administrator Jeff Morrissette said there are safer ways to get response time data.

"There is computer software that will allow for that (and) takes into consideration different factors," Morrissette said.

Seeking $175,000 for the design of a new fire station on King Street, the fire department was asked last month by the Board of Estimate and Taxation for a comprehensive plan for deploying firefighters throughout town.

Response time for fires in northwest Greenwich, which includes the King Street corridor, are more than double the recommended four minutes, according to public safety officials.

Plans originally called for a new fire station to open in 2011-12 and would require the town to hire 16 new firefighters to staff the facility, costing taxpayers an estimated $1.2 million annually in salaries, benefits and operating expenses.

The prospect of additional staffing didn't sit well with BET members after the town laid off 20 full-time and 19 part-time employees from its 1,020-person, non-school work force in February, the first time in recent memory that it has had to resort to job cuts.

The information gathered during the recent drills will help update maps showing response times from different stations and where there is deficient coverage, according to fire officials, who said they don't have computer simulation software.

Tesei said he wouldn't have sanctioned the drills.

"If I saw trucks racing down the Post Road, I would conclude they are responding to a call," said Tesei, who plans to write a memo to fire and police officials summarizing what went wrong and his expectations for their future conduct.

Siecienski apologized for the drill and the miscommunication between his department and police.

"For two departments who have worked extremely hard to improve communications between the both, there was a lack of communication," Siecienski said. "I'll take responsibility for that."

Siecienski's mea culpa comes on the heels of a concerted effort by the fire department to cut down on accidents involving its vehicles, an initiative that has drawn the scrutiny of various town officials.

In the past two fiscal years, the number of fire department vehicle accidents dropped from 24 in 2006-07 to 8 in 2007-08, according to reports from the town.

"You wouldn't want to risk endangering someone in the public unless it was absolutely an emergency," said Larry Simon, a BET member.

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