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Connecticut volunteer firefighters are pitted against paid firefighters

By Audrey Russo and Kristina Russo

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    NORWICH, Connecticut (WFSB) — Volunteer firefighters in Norwich are upset over changes coming to the city’s fire service.

The changes come in the form of an ordinance passed by the city council to make the service more efficient.

Some of the volunteer departments said it pit them against paid firefighters.

An ordinance passed earlier this month by Norwich City Council that ignited a firestorm among volunteer firefighters.

It implemented an Automatic Aid policy that would send paid city firefighters to serious calls in the five volunteer districts.

The ordinance passed along party lines with four democrats against three republicans on the council.

According to the chief of the volunteer Laurel Hill company, the ordinance created division pitting volunteers against paid firefighters.

“The wording of the ordinance now says all calls. Let’s define all calls. So a medical call that goes out at a city-owned property, let’s say the golf course,” Westervelt said. “Does a city unit now respond to that because that’s a call on the city property? According to the ordinance, you’d have to send a city unit, even if it’s a volunteer unit.”

Aaron Westervelt said that all chiefs previously worked on an Automatic Aid policy that was supposed to go into effect on November 1.

However, he claims the new ordinance brought at the end of October didn’t include input from volunteer department heads.

“Things were done behind our backs,” Westervelt said. “If you start taking those things away from volunteers, what’s going to make them show up?”

Norwich Mayor Peter Nystrom agreed the ordinance posed problems for the city.

Residents who lived in the jurisdiction of the paid city department pay a higher tax for their fire service than those who live in volunteer districts.

Mayor Nystrom claimed lower volunteer morale could lead to an all-paid service down the road that everyone pays for.

Nystrom said, “if they diminish the volunteer spirit of service and don’t get out to make calls, someone has to respond. I firmly believe this is DeLucia’s effort to push the fire tax city wide.”

City-council Pro Tem President Joe DeLucia argued no changes to the fire tax, or the existence of volunteers are on the table.

Delucia said, “it has never been my intention to eliminate the volunteer fire service.”

The ordinance could be rewritten or repealed in the future and likely at the forefront of any conversation about it.

It is the question of trust between the paid firefighters, volunteers, and their city government.

“To those who say this will be a drag on morale, I am concerned about that,” DeLucia said. “However, for those volunteers who say that they will not turn out for emergency calls because they refuse to work with the paid department, that’s the wrong answer.”

Westervelt said, “everybody should have been involved when an ordinance that affects everyone is written.”

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