Fire station presents station and staffing initiative

FI-greenwich-town-sealTown residents and firefighters came out in full force to Greenwich Library’s Cole Auditorium on Jan. 30 to hear the Greenwich Fire Department’s presentation of its station and staffing initiative for the proposed Northwest fire station.

The discussion was a comprehensive overview of the two major challenges currently facing both the fire department and the community at large: the ongoing staffing deficiency and the possible construction of a Northwest fire station, which has long been advocated by residents but has been unable to get full town approval to go forward.

The timing of the meeting, scheduled on the eve of the annual budget deliberations which began this week, was strategic. On the following Monday, Feb. 4, the Board of Education and the first selectman’s office presented the budget to the Board of Estimate and Taxation (BET) (see story on page one). By setting up the meeting at that time, First Selectman Peter Tesei and fire Chief Peter Siecienski said they hoped to provide town residents with a greater sense of station and staffing fundamentals and encourage a townwide discussion while the budget was under review.

“The issue of staffing and response as well as life safety is an ongoing one for the town and has often been given short shrift in terms of the way it’s been acted upon,” said Mr. Tesei. “My belief is to reignite, no pun intended, the discussion. To get people to focus on the fundamental issues and to be able to have an intelligent dialogue amongst ourselves on how to address it.”

Chief Siecienski stated that the meeting marked the “first stepping-stone” of the initiative and emphasized the communitywide importance of the issues presented. Regardless of opinion, he said, he hoped ultimately to get residents as informed and involved as possible.

“These are issues that have to be discussed as a whole with the entire community. And I stress that it does affect each and every one of you,” said Chief Siecienski. “We’re going to come out to the committees to make sure that everyone has an understanding, agree or disagree.”

He jump-started the discussion by thoroughly summarizing the past and present of the Fire Department. He said staffing issues are no new occurrence for the town’s seven stations and he specifically listed six incidents the Fire Department has experienced, with the first in 1989.

Chief Siecienski noted the multiple tiers of standards the department seeks to adhere to, from local recommendations to official state laws. Combined, these standards pertain to a wide range of safety issues and set a clear threshold for adequate fire protection. In general, the state laws address specifics such as equipment, apparatus, and education, whereas the recommendations detail quality fire response. Specifically, this refers to a four-minute response time and four-person company.

Chief Siecienski expressed his grave concerns about the limitations of a two-person company. Currently three stations in town, Cos Cob, Sound Beach and Byram, operate with this system. He reported that there had been plenty of documented tests that illustrate the superiority in safety and efficiency of a four-person company. At every level of fire safety standards, the global recommendation remains in favor of a four-person response.

“Whether it’s a local, state or federal standard, we understand that apparatus staffed with two firefighters are not adequate. It’s not considered by anyone’s code, standard, or recommendations to be safe,” said Chief Siecienski. “If you’re operating on a two-person engine, you’re going to be hurt three times as often as an engine that has a better staffed crew of four.”

He drew on his years of his experience as chief and cited several examples of Greenwich fires that could have been better addressed by larger teams. He shared both video and audio clips of fires that highlighted the limitations of the two-person response. In one jarring example, a firefighter was heard asking for manpower and was ultimately left unable to address a fire despite being on the scene.

“The concern here is that two-person fire engines initially on the scene do not work. The system puts people in situations where they’re going to get hurt. Staffing has been an issue in Greenwich for 25 years,” said Chief Siecienski. “We need to find some sort of middle ground to get those two-person engines moving in a direction where if we can’t get it to four because there is a cost, then let’s get them to three and get some help for these individuals that are out there.”

After providing the compelling visual evidence for inadequate staffing, Chief Siecienski addressed the second challenge, Northwest fire protection and the possibility of a fire station. He estimated that there were more than 2,000 target hazards in the area. Defined as high life safety and value issues, these included students and teachers of Brunswick School and Convent of the Sacred Heart, patients and residents of the Greenwich Woods health care facility, and employees of the Tudor Investment corporation.

This figure didn’t include passengers traveling through Westchester Airport, a figure estimated to be more than one million annually.

With all these risks in mind, the coverage hole in this area seems daunting. Chief Siecienski commended the considerable efforts of the Round Hill Volunteer Station, thanking the volunteers for a “tremendous amount of support and service for many years” and calling it the “most improved station” while under his tenure. Despite their best efforts, Chief Siecienski unequivocally expressed the continuing need for increased coverage.

“Their work is admirable but I’m not comfortable as the fire chief of Greenwich with limiting the fire protection to the community, specifically to the northwest community, to what may happen or will happen. The northwest community deserves fire protection,” said Chief Siecienski.

The Fire Department’s overarching goal is to provide a speedy and consistent response time across town. Currently response time ranges from four minutes in central areas to 10 to 15 minutes in more distant areas such as northwest Greenwich. These figures do not take into account inclement weather conditions, which can tack on additional delay.

“The longer we wait to get water on those fires, the greater those fires are. The longest minutes of your life are going to be those minutes when you’re waiting for emergency services. When you’re waiting for a fire engine to come to your aid, it hurts. We don’t want to be waiting for manpower,” said Chief Siecienski.

The construction of a Northwest fire station would significantly reduce response times in the area and also provide sufficient coverage townwide, he added. Chief Siecienski said that with a strategic location, the inclusion of another fire station would ensure that the entire town would be covered with sufficient initial on-the-scene coverage within nine minutes.

“Is it perfect? No. Is it good? It’s great. It’s a good step, it’ll save lives and it’ll save property,” said Chief Siecienski.

In addition to providing full coverage and assuaging staffing liabilities, Chief Siecienski outlined the broader benefits to be reaped by the town. Obtaining viable competitive insurance premiums has been extensively cited as a major issue for backcountry Greenwich homeowners. With upcoming town ratings, there’s a lot at stake.

According to Chief Siecienski, an additional station that “cuts down the response and improves protection in northwest Greenwich” can only benefit the town’s fire service, by improving life safety, efficiency and property protection. It would also lead to an array of positive results: lower, more competitive town ratings, reasonable insurance premiums and ultimately more savings for Greenwich.

Chief Siecienski attempted to provide a sweeping overview of the Fire Department’s issues and its current needs. He shared his goals for the following year, saying that at the same time next year, he hoped he’d be discussing the allocation of construction dollars to use on the Northwest fire station. He emphasized the Fire Department’s openness to compromise and said that, if not a four-person staff, he would petition for a third person, because while it wasn’t the “end all, be all,” it was indeed progress.

At the end of the day, he and Mr. Tesei both entreated the town to put the decades-long discussion to a close, by finally deciding on the matter and moving forward with a cohesive plan of action.

“I think this is a point of departure for a very important conversation, that the town can’t kick the can down the road,” Mr. Tesei said. “In Greenwich, we have a government of citizens and volunteers. Let’s make the right decision, let’s just make a decision. At the end of the day, what we want to come out of this is to just make a decision and not to make artificial arguments to delay making that decision. Let’s just make a decision and go forward so people have resolution and we can get on with the business of the town.”

Both Mr. Tesei and Chief Siecienski encouraged the audience to get involved by attending public meetings and hearings, and by contacting RTM and BET members. Upcoming dates include the full BET public hearing on the 2014-15 budget on Tuesday, March 18, in the Town Hall meeting room.

The resounding theme of the night’s presentation was the communitywide importance of the discussion. Ultimately this is a quality-of-life issue for every resident of Greenwich.

“We need assistance. Who’s the we? It’s not me, it’s not the assistant chief, it’s not even Peter Tesei thrown into the mix. It’s not the we. The we is every one of you who is warming a seat out here tonight,” said Chief Siecienski. “It’s a community decision, it’s a community event. This is a community decision and ultimately, as it is across this country, it’s the community that sets the level of protection that you’re comfortable with.”


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