Fire official's research project leads to call for change in New - WFSB 3 Connecticut

I-Team Investigation

Fire official's research project leads to call for change in New Hartford

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There are calls for change in New Hartford (WFSB) There are calls for change in New Hartford (WFSB)

What started as a grad school research project is now leaving to calls for change in New Hartford.

The town has three small fire districts, but some are wondering if they're all needed.

It all started with a 130-page research paper.

“I was trying to answer the question ‘is this safe and are we being fiscally responsible?’ and the answer is ‘no’ and ‘no’,” said New Hartford Deputy Fire Chief Richard Marcus.

For his graduate program at the National Fire Academy in Maryland, New Hartford Deputy Fire Chief Richard Marcus looked into the town's fire districts to see if the system dating back decades still made sense. 

He expected the answer would be no, but even he was surprised by what he found. 

New Hartford has three fire districts: New Hartford Village Fire, Pine Meadow Fire, and South End Fire.

Marcus's research showed that over a five-year period, none of the three departments met the national standard of responding to 80 percent of their calls in 14-minutes or less. 

Since the departments are separate, they each plan for their district's needs, instead of worrying about what's best for the whole town. 

That means redundancy. The three combined have more fire trucks than the nearby city of Torrington, even though Torrington has six times the residents, and that's just the beginning.

“We have three tax collectors, we have three secretary treasurers, we have three offices,” Marcus said.

No department in town has an aerial truck. When they need one, they wait up to 20 minutes for a truck to arrive from Canton or Winsted. 

Marcus said none of the three small districts wants to pay the $750,000 or more to buy one alone.

“Why should one group of taxpayers foot the bill for that when it should be a town-wide expense,” Marcus said.

What's perhaps most startling is the number of calls. New Hartford Village Fire responded to 210 calls in 2017, and did meet response time goals that year. 

South End went to 160 calls, but fell behind the response standard. 

Pine Meadow got just 22 calls all year, that's less than one call every 16 days.

Marcus said the records he reviewed showed their apparatus was only on scene four times in 2017.

“The insurance services organization, which is the insurance rate setting company for the country, has said they don't consider them to be a fire dept. And they have the highest mill rate,” Marcus said. “They're paying the highest mill rate for virtually no service, it's a group of hardworking individuals down there, but there's no reason for that district to exist.”

“It's crazy to have a whole department for 22 calls,” said Gary LeBeau, a former state senator.

Since leaving his state Senate seat, East Hartford’s Gary LeBeau has become an outspoken advocate for regionalism. 

He thinks what Marcus uncovered in New Hartford is a smaller version of what he's seeing statewide.

“You have a parks and rec department in every single town, you have a public works department in every single town, and the other big thing is the schools. Connecticut is so far behind in so many ways, and particularly our cost of government. I believe that a billion a billion and a half dollars can be saved by regionalization,” LeBeau said.

However, LeBeau’s message is often greeted with skepticism in the land of steady habits.

“I hear a lot of sticks in the mud who don't want to move, it's time. We've got to modernize. My God, every other place in the country has done this, why can't we,” LeBeau said.

The Channel 3 I-Team reached out to the chiefs of the three departments to get their take. 

A joint statement from the chiefs of the New Hartford and South End departments said, “we understand the importance of consolidation of fire departments and fire districts. We are striving to work towards this goal for the benefit of all. However, this plan needs to be done the right way, with professionalism and with great thought and respect."

They said though there's no timetable for when it will happen. 

The chief at the Pine Meadow department said he likes Marcus personally but is totally opposed to what he calls a takeover of his department, saying "when the hammer drops, when the tones go off and it's something bad, you need all this equipment. This is a school paper and he's trying to run with it." 

Pine Meadow's chief also said the response numbers are misleading because some calls are false alarms and others are just to standby at another department. 

Despite the criticism, Marcus is undeterred, and said consolidation could mean lower taxes for many in town, the opportunity to plan for the purchase of an aerial truck, and better response times to most calls. 

In nearby towns, consolidation happened as taxpayers got fed up.

“Here it's going to be taxpayer driven too. I think it'll happen,” Marcus said.

If it does happen in New Hartford, LeBeau said he hopes it will be just the start. 

He agrees it'll take taxpayers demanding change before any real efforts like this take off.

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