Conn. firefighter response drill halted by police

By Neil Vigdor
The Connecticut Post Online

GREENWICH, Conn. — It's fire season in Greenwich — sort of.

Trying to build up data on response times, fire trucks were sent out last week on mock calls throughout town with their lights and sirens activated to see how far they could get in four minutes, a nationally recognized standard for firefighting.

But the move caught police brass off guard, prompting them to call for the practice to stop because of safety and liability concerns.

"We would never support going lights and sirens in an emergency vehicle without a bona fide emergency," police Chief David Ridberg said. "We expressed our concern to them and they stopped."

Assistant Fire Chief Robert Kick said firefighters were instructed to avoid any activities that could compromise safety during the drills, which lasted for a day and a half.

"Stop at all red lights. Stop at all stop signs. Don't put anybody in jeopardy. Use your judgment," Kick said firefighters were told.

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.

The information gathered during the recent drills will help the department update maps showing response times from different stations and where there is deficient coverage, according to Kick.

"Our response times range from 10 seconds to 14 minutes," Kick said.

On the maps, rings show how far a fire truck can make it from each station in four minutes, the standard recommended by the National Fire Protection Association.

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.

Police officials 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."

Police Lt. Timothy Berry, head of the department's traffic section, said the law is very specific.

"You've got to be going to an emergency call. An emergency is an emergency," Berry said. "I guess it's part of their deployment plans town-wide. I said there might be some issues with that."

Kick said firefighters are taught to weigh the risks associated with their actions.

"Everything we do is based on a risk-benefit analysis," Kick said. "Obviously, there was a bit of risk-taking in gathering this data, but I kept it as minimal as possible."

Kick said fire trucks were dispatched from all fire stations in town, including ones in Glenville and on North Street. There are seven fire stations located in town.

First Selectman Peter Tesei, who also serves as both police and fire commissioner, said he was not aware of the situation and would hope that both public safety units under his command would work together.

"The police and fire departments have a very good rapport between them. I would expect they would be communicating any type of training or testing that would have an impact on the other," Tesei said.

Told of the state statute governing emergency vehicles, Tesei said public safety officers should obey the law.

"I would expect the uniformed services overall to act within the guidelines and procedures as dictated," Tesei said. "If this is something that is not provided for, then it should not be done."

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