Editor’s note: This guest post is published with permission from William H. Beebe, Jr., firefighter, medic, and former Poquonnock Bridge Fire District committee chair.

William H. Beebe, firefighter

When did firefighters become the enemy? Firefighters are sworn in and take an oath when they start employment. In a nutshell, the oath they swear to is to serve in a position to provide emergency services to prevent the loss of life and property in the municipality they are assigned to.

When did firefighters become the enemy? Firefighters understand that fighting fires comes with inherit risks. Through many hours of education, years of training and experience, these risks can be reduced. However, each morning the firefighter puts on their uniform, kisses their family or significant other goodbye and reports for duty, they know that there is always the possibility they may never come home. It is something accepted in the fire service; service before self.

When did firefighters become the enemy? Firefighters are the first to respond on your worst day. When your home is on fire, when your car is wrapped around you and you need to be cut out, or when your closest family member goes into cardiac arrest and they are there to start CPR and use a defibrillator to restart their heart. Throughout my years as a professional firefighter, I have never heard of anyone speaking negatively of us when we are on your scene providing fire suppression, rescue, hazmat, or emergency medical care for you or your loved ones. Firefighters perform these duties with pride, professionalism, and compassion. Their duty and calling is to help others in need, even if that means putting their own safety/life at risk.

Firefighter performing infant CPR

So when did firefighters become the enemy? Some people have the impression that when firefighters aren’t actively involved at an emergency call, they are lounging around in recliners watching TV. Firefighters are continually in training. Company level training takes place every day. Training in fire suppression, rescue, hazmat, and emergency medicine is never ending. Firefighters train hundreds of hours every year. In the fire service, no two calls are ever alike. A firefighter trains to be prepared for that next emergency call.

When did firefighters become the enemy? Fire trucks are sometimes seen at the grocery store as firefighters are inside shopping for food. I’ve heard many comments about this on many occasions. Comments like, “I wish I got paid to shop”. Or, “what a waste of money driving that big truck to the grocery store.” There is a reason the firefighters need to go shopping for food. On many occasions firefighters report to duty with plenty of food to last through their scheduled shift but end up getting ordered to stay for another shift, two, or even three. Firefighters frequently are at work in the station 48 – 72 hours straight. Time they are willing to sacrifice away from family and loved ones all in the name of duty. A practice that has been commonplace in the fire service for over a hundred years.

PBFD firefighter and child

When did firefighters become the enemy? Lately the buzz has been about how firefighters, police officers, and teachers unions are causing our taxes to go through the roof. Why do we hear this? About 10 years ago economic growth and stability was prevalent. The stock market was giving returns of 20 -30 percent on investments. During this period of time, some elected officials heard from auditors that pension funds were overfunded so municipalities opted not to make their required contributions to these funds. The firefighters, police officers, and teachers all continued to make their required retirement fund contributions. After the downturn in the economy, the auditors told the elected officials that their retirement funds are now underfunded. This wouldn’t have happened if the municipalities had continued to make their required contributions to the fund. Now they are trying to catch up by increasing your taxes and blaming the bargaining units for the situation they are in. Had they acted in a fiscally responsible manner when preparing their budgets, they wouldn’t be in the position they are now resulting in increased taxes to pay for their fiscal irresponsibility.

When did firefighters become the enemy? Running a fire department is no different than running any other business. A vision and strategic planning are vital in providing emergency services in a fiscally responsible manner. Capital expenditures need to be planned for and budgeted for over many years. The cost of fire apparatus today sometimes exceeds a million dollars. These expenditures currently aren’t budgeted for. Apparatus replacement scheduling and budgeting should be implemented. They need to be budgeted for so the money is available for these purchases when older apparatus needs replacement. Trying to replace old and unreliable apparatus without strategic planning and budgeting puts an unfair burden upon the taxpayer.

firefighter paternal instinct

When did firefighters become the enemy? Recently the firefighter’s union in Poquonnock Bridge bargained in good faith with management and the fire board of directors. Together they came to a mutually agreed upon ten year contract that details minimum staffing, payroll, and benefits. One would think that it would have been pretty simple to prepare a budget to present to voters that would have supported this defined expenditure. Instead, [the board] chose to push through a budget that didn’t even meet the fiscal year’s payroll expenses. All while spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on legal fees trying to terminate the bargained agreement. I’ve heard some say that unions have no place in municipalities. It’s for reasons like this that unions were organized. The firefighters employed by the Poqounnock Bridge Fire District bargained in good faith. They have in many instances put their safety in the hands of God, their training, and experience. And in doing so have saved lives and property.

For the firefighters that got laid off today, I thank you for your service and commitment. It’s a shame you were used as a pawn in someone’s personal agenda to destroy one of the most respected and progressive fire departments in New England. I’m ashamed to say that during the mid 90′s I spent time as the Chairman of the Fire District Committee. It’s a shame they think it’s a game to play with your livelihoods and the safety of the firefighters and residents of the Poquonnock Bridge Fire District. If there is anything you need, please ask.

When did firefighters become the enemy? For years now firefighters have been trying to do more with less. The slashing of fire department budgets has been prevalent. It’s come to the point where budgets are passed that don’t even meet the basic requirements to provide the services they are required to provide. In Poquonnock Bridge they have closed the Fort Hill station. They have laid off more than 40% of their firefighters. They have no capability to make an interior fire attack with the 3 firefighters they now have on duty. They can no longer attempt any rescue of any victims above the second floor due to the moth-balling of their ladder truck and the complement of ground ladders it carried. And as of this morning they will no longer be responding to basic emergency medical calls. Elected officials are pointing the finger at the bargaining unit. But in honesty, this mess was caused by them and the Chief of the department. No vision, no strategic planning and no budget planning caused this mess. Firefighters have always tried to do more with less. And I’m sure that will continue. It will continue because that’s what firefighters do. Firefighters swore to an oath. I think it’s time our elected officials do too.

—William H. Beebe, Jr.

Update: PBFD responded fully staffed (for the last time) to a working fire at Phoenix Apartments. Room and contents knocked down in 10 minutes.

Alan Ackley package store owner and fire district president

Synopsis of groton fubar to date
As predicted here, the Groton town council won’t touch the PBFD mess. As the New London Day reported today, they hid behind their attorney, who claimed the town had no legal obligation for fire/resecue/ems/hazmat (FREH) services, a strictly fire district responsibility. At the same time, the town’s attorney said yes, the town had a legal interest in firefighter pensions. In the meantime, Ackley faces court dates on August 11 and 12 to determine if he can violate the old union contract to layoff firefighters and if he has authority to rescind the new contract. For the next two weeks, then, residents and business owners in PBFD will play Russian roulette with emergency services and the adjacent fire districts will foot the bill with more mutual aid into PBFD to meet even a minimum first alarm assignment. At least the town government has protected itself against law suits.

Fubar on purpose
This is what Ackley wants. A busted union. Public safety has nothing to do with it, as he explained in a recent letter* sent to the town and state government. We’ll provide translation into English.

Ackley fubar paragraph one
Subject: Poquonnock Bridge Fire District

Bill Plummer [Mr. William Plummer], manager
Local Govt. Program Manager
[Municipal Finance Services]
[Intergovernmental Policy Division]
Office of Policy and Management
450 Capitol Ave. [Avenue]
Hartford, Ct. [CT] 06106-1379

[Dear] Mr. Plummer:

As you may recall, last year in September we met with you and David LeVasseur regarding the financial situation of our fire district. We found the meeting to be constructive as the options that were before us at that time. Again we have reached a similar exigency with regard to our budget and the limitations that it imposes.

We manufactured a phony budget crisis last year, and we’re doing it again this year.

Ackley fubar paragraph two
At our annual meeting of the taxpayers in May, the public voted and passed a budget which imposes multiple restrictions for us particularly with regard to fulfilling the requirements of a previously signed contract with the Union representing the firefighters of our district. We have formulated a new budget beginning July 1, 2014 terminating July 1, 2015 that has a consequence of a layoff that effects nine firemen. Herein lies our predicament. In order to comply with the will of the taxpayers and provide them with the necessary budget that was adopted, the layoffs that ensue breaches that aspect of the Union contract which calls for a minimum manning of five (5) firefighters per shift. The resultant manning, after the implementation of the new budget, will consist of four (4) men per shift thus violating the terms of their contract.

At the May annual meeting, I had one of my package store employees introduce a budget I wanted to force layoffs after I had publicly opposed the budget recommended by my own board. In other words, I know we violated the contract, we did it on purpose, and we don’t care.

Ackley fubar paragraph three
If you remember, we are a town made up of nine individual fire districts. Mutual aid is provided by other fire districts to us. We will be working closely with Joseph Sastre in the Groton Office of Emergency Management. We will be restricting our call volume to those of a life-threatening nature only given that these same calls are being responded to by Groton Ambulance, the Lawrence and Memorial Hospital Paramedic Unit, and the Groton Town Police. The public voted to reinstate volunteer firefighters to assist our current career force. We have an expressed interest from a number of volunteers who want to reestablish themselves as a newly formed volunteer compliment to our district and will be a welcome addition in providing public safety for our taxpayers.

I said back in 2012 that I’d run PBFD like a package store. I’d reduce supply, which would reduce demand for emergency service. But we don’t have a plan to coordinate these changes with the ambulance company, the hospital, the police departments, the state police, or adjacent fire districts. However, our new board member, Ron Johnson, used to be a volunteer, so we gave him some money to plan something. He’s working on it, and the new budget that didn’t fund nine firefighters did fund five volunteers.

Ackley fubar paragraph four
We have a practical plan in place for the preservation of public safety. We certainly want to avoid a costly court battle with the firefighters Union over the breach in the five man manning element of their contract, but budgetary constraints have dictated that we proceed in this manner. Since the fire districts are autonomous and not within the purview of the Town of Groton, it’s intervention would not be part of the solution at this time. We will be working with Town councilors in the near future to discuss all of our issues. We are reaching out to those of you in the Office of Policy and Management to offer any solutions including a complete reorganization of our district with the future aim of providing both public safety and financial practicality and affordability for our taxpayers. Our district board will be awaiting any correspondence that you might offer.

Seriously, we have no plan, and we’re spending a ton of money on legal fees that could be spent keeping firefighters employed. But public safety has nothing to do with union busting. Unions don’t belong in the public sector, as I said in 2012. And I don’t want the town government in my way while I bust the union, and I have no idea how the state would reorganize PBFD, or how that would keep taxes where I want them for all the property my family owns in Groton, but I thought I’d just throw that in there. It sounded good. I really don’t have clue.

Ackley fubar letter signature line
Thank you.

Alan A. Ackley
Poquonnock Bridge Fire District President
Phone: 860-445-2002
Email:[email protected]

*But for the outside address of the letter as one example, we didn’t take time to correct the mess Ackley made of fact, grammar, mechanics, spelling, logic, and format.
Barry Roberts Greer
editor, pipenozzle.com
author, Engine 10, Pipe Nozzle, Seven Two, Of Cowards and Firefighters

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