Correction: For the New London Day. Attorney F. Jerome O’Malley, who represents Alan Ackley and the fire board, told us that he’d been misquoted. He never said or wrote that PBFD FY2014 run total was 1,237. He said the report generated today by Groton Dispatch, which has a 1,859 total for PBFD runs in FY2014, is correct.
It’s not good to be chief
It’s not good to be Todd Paige, chief of the Poquonnock Bridge Fire Department. Summoned by subpoena, he testified in New London court and had to tell the truth about the risks Ackley created by forcing layoffs. Analysis of his testimony and others, as reported by The Day, will follow. But we’re not all that empathetic; Paige has spoken the truth to the district board at more than one meeting, but he never pushed a point too hard, and he admitted in public at the May 2014 annual meeting that he does what the board tells him to do, even if the board forces him to make decisions he would not and should not make as an emergency services leader. He can resign—or refuse to allow Ackley to ruin the department and jeopardize public safety and get fired for doing the right thing.
The New London Superior Court judge said that, to enjoin the layoffs, he had to answer what is a ludicrous question: Do the layoffs create an imminent danger to the firefighters and the public? The judge didn’t use the word “ludicrous” but he was attempting to predict the future for a profession that responds to unpredictability. To emergencies. To events that the best insurance actuaries can reduce only to probability. Or, in other words, is it really necessary to have a staffed airport crash truck when so few planes crash?
“At one point during the hearing,” Deborah Straszheim wrote for The Day, “[Judge] Moukawsher asked Chief Todd Paige whether the layoffs created such an imminent threat to firefighter safety that the court needed to step in today, rather than wait 30 to 60 days for the labor board to act.” Paige, even though under oath, waffled at first. Paige said he didn’t think the odds were great that somebody would be killed in the next five days, which meant he knew he could not truthfully make that statement. He could not predict the future and he failed to mention the rash of motor vehicle accidents (MVAs) over the weekend because the courtroom discussion focused only on structure fires, a very narrow focus.
Under questioning from the judge, Paige had to tell the truth. Yes, the risk to the public had increased with the layoffs. Yes, the risk to firefighters had increased with the layoffs. Yes, he would never have laid off the firefighters, and he had done so only because Ackley told him to do it. In other words, Ackley acted as chief of the department. “It’s a roll of the dice,” Paige told the judge.
Paige’s testimony was reinforced by PBFD Captain Brian Kiely, a firefighter with 20 years experience, who discussed the delays in firefighting caused by the staff reduction. Retired City of Hartford deputy chief, Scott Brady, present as an expert witness, corroborated Paige and Kiely by telling the court that “staffing and incident command problems, such as having supervisors handle firefighting tasks, contributes to line-of-duty deaths.” He added bluntly that three-man staffing was an “extremely unsafe practice,” and firefighters need two outside to enter a building with a modicum of safety.
The district rebuttal—sort of
The word “ludicrous” returns in any description of the retort by the fire district’s attorney, but he was just doing his job to make even the most insane inane statements with a straight face. It’s billable hours, and the hell with public or firefighter safety. F. Jerome O’Malley said PBFD didn’t have to handle all that many structure fires during a fiscal year, so firefighters didn’t have to roll the dice that often, nor did the public. A few working fires a year. Lose a few buildings. No big deal. That’s tacit admission that the district is asking firefighters and the public to accept more risk, tacit admission that the risk does exist, tacit admission that Ackley has no biusiness sticking his nose into decisions that belong to the chief, tacit admission that Ackley deliberately underfunded the department to shoot craps with public safety.
Nor did F. Jerome mention how understaffing affected response to other emergencies. BTW: If the district is still responding to medical calls in a pickup with two people, that leaves one firefighter on the pumper to handle a second call? An MVA? Wires down like yesterday on Midway Oval? Mutual aid into the City or the Sub Base or Center Groton?
And where are the promised qualified and certified volunteer firefighters? Why is a ladder truck purchase on the agenda for the August 14 district meeting when the district is spending thousands more on legal bills? And losing in more than one way. Losing in court and losing personnel who could be paid with the money donated to F. Jerome for just showing up in court.
The truth, your honor, nothing but
Below, your honor, if you click on the image, you’ll be taken to a YouTube video for a late April 2013 Minneapolis house fire. It’s actually the first of three videos, and the radio traffic, especially the voice of the incident commander, is important. In videos 2 and 3 of the fire, you’ll hear radio traffic for the most part.
Nothing seems to happen outside the house because the first due rescue company is in the building conducting primary search for the basement and first floor initially. But does so only with the first due engine company outside stretching an attack line. Note that the incident commander stays in constant radio contact with crews inside and outside the structure. Note that the incident commander pulls everyone out of the building when water supply problems developed, but before the water problems, an aggressive interior attack knocked down the bulk of the fire. Why inside? Because the incident commander had enough people to put crews inside with two hose lines while conducting primary search. The option for the IC with three people only on scene and a long delay for a full first alarm assignment would be exterior attack only, a defensive posture that would push fire back into the house to cause greater damage and would delay primary search.
B. Roberts Greer
author, Seven Two, Pipe Nozzle, Engine 10, Of Cowards and Firefighters