Conn. fire schools struggling after state cuts funding
The state budget passed in 2017 targeted savings of about $112 million, which included cutting the money for fire schools among the targeted savings of about $112 million
By Tara O'Neill
HARTFORD, Conn. — Local officials say the state is playing with fire by yanking funding to train some of Connecticut's first responders.
Regional fire schools help firefighters fulfill Occupational Safety and Health Administration requirements and qualify for certifications, and the facilities provide live-burn training.
The Fairfield Regional Fire School has been a strong advocate for continued state funding, said Scott Bisson, its director of training. Bisson is also chief of training and safety for the Fairfield Fire Department.
"We conduct many different types of training, mostly focused on emergency services," Bisson said.
The school received a total of more than $540,000 in grant support from the state from 2008 to 2017, and was scheduled to receive $70,000 for the fiscal year that ends this June, Bisson said.
But in the state budget that was passed in 2017, the General Assembly approved targeted savings of about $112 million. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's budget office included cutting the money for fire schools among the savings.
The Legislature's newly formed bipartisan Fire and EMS Caucus met for the first time on Dec. 19. Bisson said the caucus' first meeting was mainly organizational.
State Reps. Brian Ohler, R-North Canaan, and Pat Boyd, D-Pomfret, announced plans to form the caucus in May 2017. This caucus, Bisson said, is intended to educate legislators on the needs of emergency responders.
The caucus met a second time on Jan. 9 and divided into four subcommittees to focus on issues -- training/education, emergency medical services, fire marshal/regulations and labor.
"The fire and EMS agencies attend meetings and provide testimony and background information on programs for establishing priorities, but are not (caucus) members," Bisson said.
He said this caucus gives the agencies a chance to express issues for consideration to add, amend or get rid of state laws.
Bisson said the Fairfield school program is one of the primary places to train volunteer firefighters for active service, and that a lack of money was lessening the possibility of new members getting trained locally.
The Fairfield Regional Fire School was established in 1972 through a special legislative act that expanded the role of the local fire department's training center into a regional facility.
"Historically, the town has received various levels of state grant support to offset local operating expenses and pay for maintenance and repairs of the town owned facility and buildings," Bisson said.
The grants received go toward equipment, operation, training and building repairs and maintenance.
In 2011, the town and the state agreed to reconstruct the Fairfield Regional School to meet current standards for safety and training. The new campus was completed in May 2017.
Until recently, the facility received funding from the state and from fees charges for classes and rentals to the people who use the facility from out of town.
"With the state pulling 100 percent of its support, we have been running off of reserve funds," that were supposed to go toward repairing buildings used for live-burn training, Bisson said. He said now the school must charge a $100 live-burn recovery fee on top of the other rental and class fees.
The school is also in talks with the Town of Fairfield "to identify the town's share of the ... facility costs versus the regional share for use and repairs of the school," Bisson said.
"The school is operating at a reduced level of service as it cannot cover the costs to run regional Firefighter I and II certification programs ... Now we have a brand new facility that the state built for almost $13 million, but they're not giving us any money ... It's kind of bewildering," Bisson added.
The next step
Bisson said the school is raising awareness locally by talking to agencies that train there.
Kevin Catalano, spokesman for the Monroe Volunteer Fire Department, said most volunteer fire departments operate on lean budgets, and that cutting the funding to the schools limits the number of classes volunteers can afford to take.
"Any reduction in state funding to the regional fire schools will increase the cost the schools charge to the area fire departments for mandatory and optional training classes," Catalano said.
For the time being, Bisson said, the Fairfield school was forced to nearly double its classroom rental fees to make up for the lost state funds. The school has also eliminated some classes, including the Firefighter I and Firefighter II programs, because of lack of funding.
"That (is) a serious problem for us and other area volunteer departments," Catalano said, "as all our new firefighters are required to complete the FFI course in order to operate in a fire."
Bisson also said Fairfield is at a unique disadvantage because the school was closed for reconstruction for more than two years and didn't have its usual funds coming in during that time.
"With us canceling our classes, students have to travel to Beacon Falls, New Haven or Danbury to get their initial training now," Bisson said.
He said increased workers' composition cases, deaths, property loss and damage are possible when proper training isn't available.
"Training has to be funded; it has to continue," Bisson said. "The reserve fund account is dropping very quickly and, without restored state funding, will be exhausted in 12 months."
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