EDITORIAL: Fiery response aside, need for Norwich fire services director remains

·2 min read

Jun. 11—When, in a Feb. 19 editorial, we endorsed a consultant's recommendation to create the position of Norwich fire commissioner to better coordinate the city's arcane fire services, we added a prediction.

"We expect it will not be well received by the respective fire chiefs."

We would have liked to have been wrong. Unfortunately, we were quite right.

On Wednesday, the Public Safety Committee of the City Council discussed the recommendation, and chiefs from the five volunteer departments, along with some volunteer firefighters, lined up in opposition, calling the position unnecessary and a waste of money.

Fortunately, the three-member committee — Chairman Joseph DeLucia, William Nash, and President Pro Tempore Mark Bettencourt — forwarded the proposal to their fellow councilors for an eventual vote by the full council.

This is all about the volunteer departments feeling their independence threatened.

As throughout much of New England, Norwich's volunteer departments are a product of history and tradition, having emerged to protect the mill villages and isolated communities of a bygone era. This is not how fire protection would be designed for the 21st century.

These volunteer departments — Laurel Hill, Yantic, Taftville, Occum, and East Great Plain — serve about 25 square miles of the city with a population of 14,000, according to the report by McGrath Consulting Group of Wonder Lake, Ill.

The 3.2-square-mile, densely populated central district, consisting of the downtown and surrounding neighborhoods and the 26,000 residents there, is protected by the paid, full-time Norwich Fire Department. Property owners in this district pay a stiff, added property tax to pay for the protection.

There has always been tension between the volunteers and the paid service, and fears that a paid department would push out the volunteer departments.

The consultant recognized, however, that the volunteer services do a good job, that their participation rates are generally strong (which bucks national trends), and that any attempt to eliminate or combine volunteer departments would face strong opposition.

The consultant's assessment also found, though, that the existing system has resulted in much redundancy, with Norwich having far more apparatus than it needs, all paid for and maintained by taxpayers. And that it has led to much inconsistency in training, recruitment, coordination between departments, and budgeting.

Thus, the need for a fire services director who, yes, will probably tell the chiefs things they don't want to hear. Yet it is still a good idea, despite what the guys in the white helmets might tell you.

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Izaskun E. Larrañeta, staff writer Erica Moser and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.