By Brendan Keatley
It is now 30 months after the City of Stamford, Connecticut’s charter revision vote, when residents decided by an overwhelming 2 to 1 margin to modernize and unify the fire service in the state’s third largest city. That action moving forward was supposed to be critical for public safety, but modernization and unification have been at a snail’s pace.
The city is still divided into four separate fire taxing districts, with some homeowners and building owners in the northern section of the city being significantly subsidized by those in the middle and southern part of the city.
In 1949 the separate Town of Stamford and City of Stamford merged, intending to consolidate services and end duplication and bureaucratic overlap. While the police, school and other municipal functions merged, it never occurred within the fire service. 66 years later, the city still has four unique fire taxing districts.
A consequence of Stamford’s growth is that while long-established volunteer fire companies still exist — assigned to respond to emergencies at homes, businesses and corporate headquarters in the city’s northern taxing districts– irrefutable Stamford emergency response data illustrates that sufficient numbers of volunteer manpower to handle emergencies around the clock, no longer exist.
According to the NIST, modern fires burn much faster, hotter and more toxic than just 20 to 25 years ago, so while a few minutes delay two or three decades ago might not have been fatal, today it’s a different story. Additionally, the fire service all across the U.S. must adhere with federal OSHA safety laws governing fighting fires. This mandates a minimum of two firefighters on the outside of a dwelling for the initial two that go inside to search for trapped victims.
On Election Day 2012, Stamford voters were asked if they agreed with a charter revision to modernize, realign and streamline Stamford’s age-old fire service and the districts they serve. The vote was an overwhelming 66.4 percent in the affirmative (26,112 votes to 13,212). Politicians have been slow to act on the will of the people.
Among the current concerns is that a small percentage of taxpayers have long picked up the bulk of the cost, while seeing their fire protection and first responder medical service sent to other areas of the city that simply don’t pay for the service. It’s a political issue few elected leaders, especially in the North of the city are willing to address, while many seek a more equalized approach to tax mill rates.
On April 7th a significant fire in the city’s northern Long Ridge Fire District required 33 on-duty Stamford Fire Department personnel (62% of the staff on duty that day). The impact of needing so many firefighters to contain the fire was that the densely populated West Side and Woodside areas of the city were stripped bare of all four of their fire companies. The Central business district also dispatched two companies to the fire, including the on duty chief, leaving large areas of Stamford uncovered.
Of the 53 Stamford Fire Department on-duty staff assigned to protect the entire 37.64 square mile city that day, only 20 (37.7%) were left to provide protection for the remainder of the population in the 7th largest city in New England.
Nearly the exact same scenario played out on March 30th at yet another North Stamford fire. That fire required 29 Stamford Fire Department personnel — or 55% of the on-duty staff — to quell the emergency. Fire units from as far away as Stamford’s distant South End responded to the blaze.
Such recent incidents have fanned the flames about Stamford’s fire service, but now the debate has shifted to whether or not it is fair for residents in certain taxing districts to pay the tab while others get virtually a free pass. Protecting lives and property without delay is an imperative, but what’s clear is that Stamford’s current system of who pays for it is not modern, fair or equitable.
Brendan Keatley is President of the Stamford Professional Fire Fighters Association Local 786 and a veteran Stamford Fire Fighter.