[Editor's Note: The author sent the following letter to the on Feb. 1.]
I would like to tell you a recent success story of an emergency that occurred in Stamford last Sunday morning in which volunteer and career firefighters worked together for the benefit of a Stamford family. But there is more to this story than you might imagine. Read on!
It was 3 a.m. on this cold January morning when Stamford's 911 Center received an urgent call from a homeowner in the Turn of River Fire District reporting that he has a fire in his house. Under Stamford's current dispatch protocols, the (TORVFD) along with mutual aid units from the (BVFD) and the (SFRD) were dispatched to the scene.
Under the existing mutual aid plan, Belltown Volunteer Fire Department responded with a ladder truck along with five career units from the
Stamford Fire & Rescue Career Fire Department consisting of two engines, one ladder truck, a Rescue and a deputy chief.
SFRD Engine 9, from the nearby station on Long Ridge Road, was first to arrive on the scene. They were greeted by the homeowner who quickly directed the crew of three career personnel to the rear of the house, where they found a heavy smoke condition in the kitchen area. The firefighter and captain of Engine 9 stretched a hose line to the rear of the structure while the driver of the apparatus engaged the pump and prepared to supply water to the hose via the on-board tank.
Not knowing the extent of the fire, the second due engine was directed to stand by at the hydrant in case an additional static water supply was needed. This turned out to be SFRD Engine 5 from the Washington Boulevard station. Engine 5 is staffed with four career firefighters (a captain, a driver and two firefighters). The apparatus positioned itself at a nearby hydrant.
Then leaving the driver with the apparatus, the captain and two firefighters went to Engine 9 and stretched an additional hose line to the front door of the residence in case the fire spread. Belltown's Ladder truck arrived staffed with three or four qualified volunteer firefighters and was directed to perform smoke ventilation of the structure.
The four-person career crew from Rescue 1 performed a routine primary search for any distressed or trapped occupants of the upper floors while also searching for any extension of the fire. This search is regularly performed by the crew of Rescue 1 for EVERY fire so that nobody is ever missed or forgotten.
Lacking any Command units on the scene yet, the SFRD Deputy Chief from downtown established Command and directed the rest of the firefighting operations.
SFRD Truck #3 from the Westside Fire Station arrived on the scene with four more career firefighters and positioned themselves in front of the house for additional firefighting, search, rescue and/or ventilation activities if needed.
The crew from Engine 9 entered the rear of the structure, and using a thermal imaging camera to guide them, found the fire. The fire was inside some cabinets, underneath the countertops in a small kitchen area. It was quickly extinguished. Their quick, aggressive actions prevented the fire from extending into the walls and then up to the upper floors.
Everything in this incident looked like it went perfectly. Units were dispatched and responded quickly. The career units worked well with the
BFD volunteers who arrived in their ladder truck. The fire was quickly extinguished and nobody was hurt.
But there was one problem. A really BIG problem… NO UNITS FROM THE PRIMARY VOLUNTEER FIRE DEPARTMENT RESPONDED on the initial response. No Chief Officers. No apparatus. It wasn't until 25 minutes after the initial dispatch that the first engine from the Turn of River Fire Department began their response from their station. By this time, units on the scene had already extinguished the fire and were checking for fire spread. Remember…a fire doubles in size with every passing minute. So if you think minutes don't count, you would be wrong!
Now… imagine a similar incident sometime in the future where the Mayor has pushed through his plan and has replaced the guaranteed SFRD response with an unknown response by the volunteers. This alone could have made a dramatic impact on the outcome of the story you just heard.
But in this new incident, imagine now that the homeowner and his wife are forced out of their home by the heat and smoke of a first floor fire, leaving their little boy and girl trapped in their bedrooms on the second floor.
The new Volunteer Fire Department will send just four to six paid fire apparatus "drivers" on the initial response, expecting it to be supplemented by a strong volunteer firefighter response. The 17 well-seasoned SFRD career firefighters of the Stamford Fire & Rescue Department will not be there to fill in the gaps when the volunteers fail to show-up, as happened in the real incident described above.
Clearly, under the Mayor’s plan for a new volunteer fire department, this scenario could have a very tragic ending.
To make things just a bit scarier, there is an Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) Standard that requires two firefighters to be suited up and ready go on the outside before the first two can enter the building.
Under the Mayor’s plan, this would have significantly delayed action in the real life scenario mentioned above because the four to six paid “drivers” would be arriving on multiple apparatus from multiple stations.
Now you might be thinking… "Well, the Belltown volunteers showed up.” True, they did… and they usually do. Belltown has a long history of being a STRONG volunteer fire department in Stamford. But they are the exception, not the norm. There is no other Stamford volunteer fire department that can come close to regularly turning out the person-power like this small, dedicated group of volunteers does.
Frankly… if all volunteer fire departments could operate like they do, there would be no argument against the Mayor's plan. But that is just not possible. Even as well as Belltown turns out for emergency calls in their small community, they still suffer the effects of the nationwide volunteer shortage.
Years ago, Belltown was able to turn out in force for emergencies in their district, seldom needing Mutual Aid from others in the city. Not anymore. But, they seem to have recognized this. Unlike other Stamford volunteer departments that create an illusion of a strong response by sending multiple apparatus with drivers only, Belltown Fire Department has taken the very professional position of staffing their responding units with three to four qualified firefighters whenever they can. They know that firefighters put fires out, not fire engines. This earns them the respect of firefighters everywhere.
Now you may think that that the lack of volunteer response is an isolated issue. It is not. Reports generated from Stamford's Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) system clearly shows incidents regularly go unanswered by , and Turn of River Fire Departments. To the average citizen, this is not really noticeable since the career firefighters of the SRFD currently respond to all incidents in the city. This will cease under the Mayor’s plan. Since the Long Ridge Volunteer Fire Department has paid drivers, the CAD system shows that their apparatus are responding, but this hides the fact that they usually respond with drivers only.
So the moral to this story is that Stamford volunteers do have a place in a citywide fire system. But to replace the current guaranteed response by the SFRD, with a questionable volunteer response, supplemented by a few paid drivers is not only dangerous…it just makes no sense. Glenbrook recognized their staffing issues long ago and signed onto a system that works for them. Staffing volunteer apparatus like the BFD and making them part of the fully staffed career response makes the most sense. If an assigned volunteer unit does not sign on via the radio system with a full crew within a given timeframe, it can be replaced with another staffed career or volunteer unit. At least Stamford residents will know that enough firefighters are coming on every call citywide!
Former Volunteer Firefighter
Veteran SFRD Captain serving Stamford for more than 24 years