By Kimberly Fiorello
One of the things we Greenwich residents value so much about our lively buzzing town is that it is charmingly rooted in its New England sense of place and scale. Hence, many are demanding a fix to the state statute 8-30g that threatens irrevocable over-sized developments in. Greenwich. Indeed, we have engaged residents.
Another characteristic we love about our town is its Yankee spirit of voluntarism. Our Representative Town Meeting has some 230 volunteers elected to steward our town. It’s one of the largest legislative bodies in the country! Our community calendar is filled with meeting notices for myriad volunteer groups helping the needy and promoting the arts, organizing youth sports leagues and providing senior services. And yet, is the very existence of one of our essential volunteer functions under threat?
The Greenwich Volunteer District Fire Chiefs Association and the Presidents of the Greenwich volunteer fire companies say, resolutely, yes.
In a letter dated February 7, 2022, sent to the First Selectman and members of the Board of Estimate and Taxation, they point to a new standard operating procedure (SOP) that prohibits volunteers from responding to emergencies in their personal vehicle as they have for generations and requires them first to go to their fire stations. It also increases the staffing requirements on volunteer apparatus, meaning they must wait for more volunteers to arrive at the firehouse and ride on the apparatus together in order to respond to the emergencies.
The volunteer fire chiefs are strongly objecting to the new SOP and calling for it to be rescinded. They are also asking for clarity on their future – does the town truly want a “combination” fire service that values both career and volunteers or does the town want to phase out the role of volunteer fire companies?
Historically, Greenwich had all-volunteer fire companies supplemented with a few paid drivers. The Amogerone Volunteer Fire company was founded in 1876 and the Byram Volunteer Fire Department in 1890. However, in recent decades, we shifted to a “combination” model with both volunteer and career firefighters. And perhaps today, we are moving more towards a model of career fire companies supplemented by a few volunteers?
Twenty-five years ago, there were over 300 volunteers. Today, across the seven firehouses in Greenwich, we have 110 volunteer firefighters who are available as needed and well-trained by the town. We have 107 town-paid career firefighters, who work one 24-hour shift every four days in an operational capacity or a 40-hour week in an administrative role.
The financial benefit the town receives from having volunteer fire companies is enormous. The town’s 2022 fire department budget is $15.8 million, of which only $500,000 is allocated for volunteer personnel needs and equipment. At the same time, the volunteer companies own and maintain over $2.2million worth of equipment and apparatus that are put to use in emergencies and saves the town additional hires and overtime pay.
Significantly, Greenwich’s Insurance Services Office, ISO rating – an important national rating regarding the fire suppression response capabilities of a town that is used to determine the town’s eligibility to obtain liability insurance – benefits more than two percentage points because Greenwich has a viable volunteer complement to its fire department.
Ninety-five percent of our volunteers live in Greenwich. And among them are the veterans who have been volunteers since they were teens, often with their fathers, who spoke to me so passionately about advocating for the work of volunteer fire fighters.
They pose thoughtful questions, like what sense is there for the town to train volunteers but are not use them to maximum effectiveness? Nobody wants to show up to help and have nothing to do, they say. Morale is low among the volunteers, they say.
The veteran volunteer fire fighters wanting to save the institution of volunteer fire houses from obsolescence remind me so much of the wonderful residents I’ve met who feel as passionately about saving Brookridge Drive, the historic Fourth Ward and Benedict Place from demolition.
Greenwich is blessed to have so many people who care. We have very fine career firefighters, many of whom, in fact, started out on their chosen paths as volunteer firefighters. Please email Greenwichvollies@mail.com to learn more about how to support our volunteer fire fighters and maybe even become one.