Waterford tackles difficult challenge of providing fire protection

Most towns in southeastern Connecticut have long depended on volunteers to save lives and minimize property damage when fire strikes. Perhaps that service was too much taken for granted. No longer. The volunteer model is under stress from several factors and a town fails to respond to this new reality at its peril.

Volunteer fire companies evolved to serve the villages and neighborhoods in which they are located. Geography and pre-highway road systems often isolated these fire districts in ways that no longer exist. Some were built to protect long-gone mills and the communities that arose around them.

In a different time, most people worked in the community where they lived. That meant volunteer firefighters were nearby when the alarm sounded. Not so today. More people commute to work, at an impractical distance to provide the immediate response firefighting requires.

Where once families tended to set down roots in a community for generations, the legacy of volunteer firefighting passed down, now young adults are more likely move where the jobs and opportunities exist.

More stringent training requirements, the high cost of apparatus and navigating labor rules all add to the stress of making a system built for the 19th and 20th centuries viable in the 21st.

If starting from scratch, our firefighting institutions would certainly look far different. Boundaries for fire districts would be redrawn to serve communities as they now exist. There would be fewer departments. Fire engines and equipment would be more prudently allocated, eliminating the redundancy inherent when every department wants to get its fair share, with that apparatus usually subsidized or paid in full by town-wide taxes.

But there will be no starting from scratch. And that is how it should be. Our volunteer fire companies have a deep heritage, they’ve been there when needed. Their elimination would almost certainly make it more difficult to maintain and recruit volunteers. It would be unfair to summarily push them aside for a new model.

Change, however, is necessary and it has begun. Towns are utilizing more paid firefighters, assuring quicker responses to fire scenes and allowing a department’s work to begin even while the volunteers gather. Many communities are offering modest stipends and other incentives to attract and maintain volunteers.

Recent steps in Waterford add a new and interesting twist to this effort to reimagine community firefighting services for our still relatively new century. The Representative Town Meeting recently passed an ordinance creating a Waterford Fire Department. This new department, however, does not replace the existing volunteer fire companies — Cohanzie, Goshen, Jordan, Quaker Hill and Oswegatchie — but is layered over them.

The creation of an umbrella department will lead to a single set of guidelines and procedures, making it easier for the companies to share volunteers and other resources. Like other towns, Waterford has incorporated paid firefighters into the services. It also needs to provide more of the incentives seen in other towns to encourage volunteerism in the local fire companies, discussions about which are underway.

Not surprisingly, the initiative has faced pushback from the fire companies. Their concerns include erosion of autonomy and the potential that this is a step toward eliminating some of the firehouses.

Such fears have some merit. In time, it may be determined that closing or consolidating fire companies is the sensible step, not only in Waterford but in other local towns as well. Asking for guarantees that the status quo will be maintained in perpetuity is unreasonable. The steps taken in Waterford are modest and realistic, sending a signal that the community wants to work with, not against, these fire companies. We see no hints of any hidden agendas.

It is interesting to note this initiative, dating back 18 months, came out of the RTM. Normally such change could be expected to flow from the Board of Selectmen. But tackling this issue is politically challenging. The volunteer fire companies, their members, families and friends, form a formidable voting bloc in many towns.

Credit goes to RTM member Beth Sabilia, now the Democratic candidate for first selectman, for her work on this policy initiative while serving on the RTM’s Public Protection and Safety Committee. While at their Sept. 26 debate both Sabilia and her opponent, Republican Selectman Rob Brule, recognized the need to address the challenges facing the volunteer fire companies, Sabilia came across as more forthright about doing so.

That kind of attitude can benefit Waterford and other towns in addressing this difficult issue.

 

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Tim Cotter, Staff Writer Julia Bergman and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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