Volunteer chiefs dispute Conn. city's automatic-aid agreement

The agreement calls for automatic aid between the paid and volunteer departments to structure fires and serious incidents


By Claire Bessette
The Day, New London, Conn.

NORWICH, Conn. — Tensions over fire services flared in a dispute over a recent agreement that calls for automatic aid between the paid and volunteer departments to structure fires and serious incidents.

The so-called "auto-aid" agreement was reached by City Manager John Salomone, chiefs of the five volunteer departments and the city's paid fire chief.

One day after the automatic aid agreement was put in place Nov. 1, the volunteer chiefs withdrew their support after learning of a proposed Norwich City Council ordinance that would codify the agreement into city law.
One day after the automatic aid agreement was put in place Nov. 1, the volunteer chiefs withdrew their support after learning of a proposed Norwich City Council ordinance that would codify the agreement into city law. (Photo/Norwich FD)

But one day after it was put in place Nov. 1, the volunteer chiefs withdrew their support after learning of a proposed City Council ordinance that would codify the agreement into city law.

Volunteer firefighters and supporters packed the council's Public Safety Committee meeting Wednesday, forcing cancellation of the meeting when the overflow crowd surpassed room capacity. The committee will hold a special meeting at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Kelly Middle School auditorium to discuss the ordinance and a second proposed ordinance governing purchasing fire equipment.

The letter by the volunteer chiefs withdrawing support cited six issues of contention and said the proposed ordinance is premature.

The chiefs called the agreement "a work in progress" to be tried for six months to gather data. They said it might prove to be not cost effective.

"The Norwich City Council's recently proposed ordinance violates and oversteps the organizational operations of each of the volunteer companies," the letter stated, "and furthermore the Norwich City Council's Public Safety Committee's constant and consistent attempts to micromanage the delivery (of) emergency services citywide to meet a clearly identified political agenda."

Democratic Council President Pro Tempore Joseph DeLucia, chairman of the Public Safety Committee, said the dispute is uncalled for. He said the auto-aid agreement "was always intended to be codified in an ordinance."

Without an ordinance, DeLucia said, the auto-aid would be subjected to the whims of future chiefs or city managers with no clear directives.

Reciprocal automatic responses for structure fires was a key recommendation in a 2021 fire services study by the McGrath Consulting Group, which studied the city's fire services.

Despite the volunteer chiefs' withdrawal of support, the auto-aid policy was in place on Nov. 8, when a serious fire in a three-family house on Bolduc Lane in Taftville displaced nine people. Norwich emergency dispatch called Taftville with automatic aid from the city's Greeneville fire station. The paid crews arrived first and began to lay out fire hoses to attack the fire, and Taftville crews arrived two minutes later, DeLucia said.

Salomone said city dispatchers will continue to use the auto-aid policy when dispatching fire calls.

Salomone said the timing of the agreement and the ordinance surprised people, and he understands why that upset the chiefs. Salomone said the points raised in the volunteer chiefs' letter have been addressed during his regular meetings with chiefs.

He said the agreement would have to be written down, and if necessary, the ordinance could be amended.

"You can't do hand-me-down oral agreements," Salomone said.

But Taftville Fire Chief Timothy Jencks said many questions remain on auto-aid. He said the city failed to conduct a financial analysis of the plan and called the ordinance premature.

Jencks said automatic responses might not be necessary. He cited an incident when volunteers were called as auto-aid to a reported structure fire that ended up being food burning on a stove.

Jencks said if that keeps happening, it would erode volunteer service by requiring volunteers to scramble from homes or jobs to gear up for incidents and then be turned back.

"The first time it happened, they toned out six departments and one from out of town, put 52 volunteers on the road for a call that lasted seven minutes for food on the stove," Jencks said.

Divided council

The proposed ordinance met with political divide on the City Council when it was introduced Nov. 7. The normally routine vote to schedule a public hearing passed 4-3, with the council's majority four Democrats in favor, and Republican Mayor Peter Nystrom and two council Republicans, including Public Safety Committee member and volunteer firefighter Stacy Gould, voting against.

The council will hold a public hearing on the two proposed fire ordinances at its 7:30 p.m. meeting Nov. 21 at the Kelly Middle School auditorium.

Nystrom accused DeLucia of rushing the ordinance though ― "shoving it down their throats" he said, referring to the volunteer departments ― while Democrats retain their 4-3 majority.

With Democratic Alderman Derell Wilson's election as state representative Tuesday, a special election will be needed to fill his council seat. The council will be split 3-3 when Wilson resigns in January.

Nystrom argued the city did not need an ordinance for the auto-aid agreement put in place by the city manager and the chiefs. He called the volunteer chiefs' letter "a protest," ensuring the public that the departments will continue to respond when called.

"No one knew someone was preparing an ordinance," Nystrom said. "No one was asked if they would support an ordinance. (DeLucia) needs to be a better communicator."

City Manager Salomone and Taftville Chief Jencks both said the regular chiefs' meetings to work on fire services issues. will continue. Jencks said the meetings have been productive on issues such as purchasing a new fire dispatch system and uniform radio communications equipment.

Salomone remains optimistic the auto-aid issues can be resolved.

"The last thing I want to do is not work with the volunteer fire departments," Salomone said Friday. "They provide a terrific service to the city. If we did not have volunteer firefighters, we would have a much greater cost of fire service in the city."

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McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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