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RTM renews its support for fire station

September 18, 2018

GREENWICH — Advocates for a Northwest Greenwich fire station got the endorsement they wanted from the Representative Town Meeting on Monday night.

The RTM, by a vote of 126-55 with three abstentions, approved a sense of the meeting resolution put forth by District 10 calling for the town to address “the inadequate protection existing in the northwest area of Greenwich” while putting together next year’s municipal budget.

In 2016, First Selectman Peter Tesei tried to secure funding for a new station, but the RTM removed it from the budget. But Monday’s vote, after considerable debate, showed new support for the project.

However, this does not mean the station will go ahead automatically. A sense of the meeting resolution is nonbinding. It calls for Tesei and the Board of Estimate and Taxation to determine only whether and where a station is needed in northwest Greenwich; the costs of land acquisition and construction; and the staffing costs for the new station and career firefighters to staff it.

Additionally, if the fire station were included in the budget, it would still need approval from the BET and the RTM.

The resolution was spurred by a fire on Locust Road in northwest Greenwich last month when a two-and-a-half-story house burned to the ground. Though no one was home and there were no injuries reported, residents renewed their push for the station out of fears that the fire department took too long to respond in the area, which they say does not have adequate protections from fires and in other emergencies.

“This is not an issue that’s going to go away,” District 10 RTM member Louisa Stone said Monday night. “The fact is Greenwich has a big black hole where people can’t get a first responder at times comparable to what’s found in all other parts of town.”

Hundreds of residents also signed a petition in support of the resolution. Many also attended Monday’s meeting to show support, carrying signs that said: “Minutes Matter,” “Fire Safety Is Job #1” and “People Over Politics.”

Ilana Grady, who lives next door to the house that burned down, recalled how long they waited for the fire trucks to arrive that night. Three of her daughters said they were afraid as they watched their parents use a garden hose to douse embers that hit their house and began packing bags in case they had to flee.

“This is not about property, property can be replaced,” Grady said. “This is about lives, the lives of my family, our neighbors and the lives of the firefighters, volunteer and not volunteer, who were amazing that night. … You can’t put a price on someone’s life.”

Before approving the District 10 resolution, the RTM rejected a joint sense of the meeting resolution from its Budget Overview, Finance and Town Services Committees. That resolution, which would have replaced the one from District 10, called for Tesei and the town’s fire department to submit a report within 120 days to update information from 2016 about townwide fire protection, costs and possible alternative delivery methods for fire protection in town.

Lucia Jansen, chair of the Budget Overview Committee, said the cost of the property and construction of the fire house was not the problem. She said the issue is with the long-term budget costs for career firefighters to staff the station, including salaries, promotions, retirement benefits and health care costs.

“There has been no update since 2016,” Jansen said. “There’s no acknowledgment in the explanatory comments that career staffing has dramatically changed with the requirement in our labor contracts for a three-man career station. That staffing model now bumps up what was estimated to be 12 firefighters per station to some say, from BET members we’ve heard, 16 to 18 career fire professionals.”

The RTM needs more data about the costs, response times and number of incidents in the region, Jansen said, asking what more could be done with nearby volunteer firefighters.

Others argued there was no data about incidents or response times that showed the fire station was necessary.

“Although much has been made about the apparently huge risk to human life ... if you look at the fire department’s statistics, you find in the past 25 years nobody in District 10 has died in a fire,” RTM District 7 member Margaret Freiberg said. “If we had spent the equivalent of $50 million over that 25-year period for staffing and building a fire department, the $50 million would have saved exactly no lives. No lives were lost, therefore no lives could be saved.”

Frieberg’s comments were met with some derision from District 10 and the public, with several noting that emergency response to the area also includes cardiac incidents, car accidents and other incidenets.

Tesei, who called the station a long-neglected need, and Selectman Sandy Litvack, a District 10 resident, both opposed the alternative resolution and advocated for the one from District 10.

“District 10 recognizes the most important obligation and responsibility is to ensure the life safety of the inhabitants of this town,” Tesei said at Monday’s meeting. “It is well documented, long before this evening, that there is a gap in coverage in that area of town.”

Supporters of the District 10 resolution, noting the BOC’s past opposition to the 2016 fire station funding and a 2017 study of fire services, coverage and response time, said it was an attempt to kill the project. District 10 Vice Chair Alan Small called the three-committee alternative resolution “a disingenuous request,” earning a chiding from RTM Moderator Thomas Byrne about not attacking the motivations of speakers.

“We’ve seen enough houses in our neighborhood burn to the ground,” Small said.

kborsuk@greenwichtime.com

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