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New Haven firefighters rally to oppose emergency services changes

NEW HAVEN – A plan to redistribute and redeploy emergency services in New Haven has firefighters at odds with city officials. They disagree on how best to serve the citizens of New Haven, particularly in the neighborhood around Engine 9 on Ellsworth Avenue.

On Monday evening, firefighters, their family members and neighbors of the Engine 9 fire house held a rally and press conference opposing these planned changes.

The squad company vehicle at Engine 9, called Squad 2, will be removed and consolidated with Squad 1. These companies serve the entire city, and city officials say combining them will create a large scale rescue company.

A paramedic unit would be added to Engine 9. The city’s plan includes hiring 20 new paramedics to serve on two additional paramedic units.

“The city’s proposed redeployment of resources will maintain current levels of fire protection services, consolidate two rescue units into one, and expand paramedic units from two to four,” said Laurence Grotheer, spokesman for Mayor Toni Harp’s office.

“The proposed plan will increase by one the total number of fire department apparatus, maintain staffing levels at 72 personnel per shift, and provide New Haven with the highest level of emergency medical care and fire protection,” he added.

Firefighters say this plan will increase response times and delay life-saving services from getting to the neighborhoods surrounding Engine 9.

“Every citizen deserves to know that their neighborhood fire engine will be there within four minutes,” said Frank Ricci, a New Haven battalion chief and president of Fire Union Local 825.

Deputy Director of Emergency Operations Rick Fontana says the plan is based on data and numbers, and those don’t support the union’s claim.

“It’s okay to protest, but it’s not okay to mislead. They’re misleading the community. They’re creating fear in the public domain,” said Fontana, in response to Monday’s rally.

Fontana and Grotheer say the plan has been in the works for almost two years. It’s based on a need for more paramedics. They say around 75 percent of all calls to which the fire department is dispatched are medical calls.

Under the proposal, engine companies would only be dispatched on high priority medical calls or in circumstances when a paramedic unit isn’t available.

“On the normal, basic, every day call that we do so many of, we’re not going to continue to send six to eight people,” said Fontana.

Grotheer said, “The proposed plan will extend the useful service of large fire trucks that cost close to a million dollars each while the preponderance of calls – for emergency medical assistance – are answered by smaller, more versatile, and less expensive paramedic units.”

Firefighters argue local engine companies can get to calls quicker and provide basic life-saving skills before paramedics arrive.

Ricci said, “Ask any doctor. The key to positive outcomes is early intervention.”

They ‘re also worried their remaining engine, Engine 9, will be dispatched out of their neighborhood on calls once the squad company’s resources are redistributed.

“[Fontana] wants to take the squad, take it off duty, take all that equipment on Engine 9 and say, ‘Well, there’s your neighborhood engine,’ but as soon as you do that it is now a city wide resource. Not only is it city wide, that’s a regional resource,” said Local 825 Vice President Mark Vendetto, who is also a battalion chief at Engine 9.

Vendetto said, “With that equipment on it, if someone's stuck in a confined space, if there's somebody off a mountain, if there's an extraction, as a chief I am telling you now that company will be called out of this district and out of service for quite some time.”

The union and the city also dispute whether or not these changes were already negotiated in the union contract, which was signed years ago.

The city has already hired the 20 new paramedics. The new fire chief will have the ability to look over the plan and sign off on it.

Vendetto said, “We’re telling you this is the wrong way to provide the best services to the citizens of New Haven. My family lives in this neighborhood, my daughter, my brother, my aunt, my cousins. I want what’s best for them and I know as a battalion chief what is best for them.”