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Tuesday, May 21 News

‘We are no longer able to protect you,’ Westport fire union president declares

WESTPORT — There are not enough firefighters in town to properly protect Westport residents, Westport Uniformed Firefighters union President Nick Marsan said in a letter to town residents.

“As firefighters in the Town of Westport, your family’s safety is our number one priority—unfortunately, we have reached a point where we are no longer able to protect you in a way your family deserves,” Marsan said in a statement released to the media and on social media.

Two of the town’s fire houses — Greens Farms and Coleytown, have two firefighters, which poses a serious threat to the safety of residents and firefighters, Marsan said.

“In the event of a fire, a two-person fire engine arriving on scene would be very limited in what they can do —they would be faced with the hard choices of rescuing a trapped family member, attempting to extinguish the fire, or waiting for others to arrive—which could be many minutes later,” Marsan said.

Three firefighters are needed on each engine to keep residents safe, but as the town develops and grows in population, the number of firefighters has remained stagnant, Marsan said. “The current resources given to the fire department are irresponsible and place increased risks on residents,” Marsan said.

A two-person engine cannot fight a fire at the average-sized Westport home of 5,500 square feet safely or effectively, Marsan said, adding that town officials have acknowledged the danger of a two-person engine since 2007 but continuously decline to staff full crews on all of the town’s fire engines.

According to national standards, a fire in a 2,200 square foot house requires each engine have four firefighters on board, and the Westport department is only requesting three per engine, Marsan said.

Marsan urged residents to call elected officials, especially the First Selectman’s office, to request each engine in town have three firefighters on board.

Town officials respond

In response to Marsan’s letter, First Selectman Jim Marpe rejected the claim Westport residents are not properly protected from the risk of fire. “I’m confident that current staffing levels and fire stations don’t undermine the safety of the community. Our funding bodies have made every effort to ensure safety while being fiscally responsible and fair to all taxpayers,” Marpe said.

Mutual aid agreements with neighboring communities ensure fire safety professionals have been able to respond with appropriate force and speed to all areas of Westport, Marpe said. “Over the last decade, we’ve had various fires but no significant injury or loss of life for firefighters or residents that could have been prevented by additional staffing,” Marpe said.

Meanwhile, Westport Fire Department Chief Robert Yost said he agreed with the substance of Marsan’s letter and noted his department made the case ten years ago to up the department’s staffing given the fire safety risks posed by town’s newer and larger homes.

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The fire department’s staffing woes go back a decade, at least, when the town committed to adding a third person to each of town’s four firehouses but then reneged on the plan when the economic downturn hit, Yost said.

The town said union firefighters pension and retirement benefits were so expensive that the town could not support adding more staff, Yost said. Now that the firefighters union recently negotiated a new pension plan with the town that included concessions on the firefighters side, especially for new members, Yost said union members are frustrated the town hasn’t moved forward on its decade-old promise to up staffing, especially because Westport’s peer towns, such as Greenwich, Fairfield, and new Canaan all have a minimum of three person staffing per firehouse.

Nonetheless, Yost acknowledged the town has finite resources that it needs to balance. “The whole job of firefighting is very labor intensive and expensive. It’s not cheap, so the town has to weigh where it puts its resources,” Yost said.

Board of Finance Chairman Brian Stern reiterated the town’s need to staff with an eye towards both safety and fiscal security. “There will always be a case to spend more money, buy more equipment, do more training, buy more personnel, but there’s a balance there,” Stern said, adding, “Overall our fire department is excellent.”

The majority of town’s in the state have volunteer fire department’s but Westport has a fully-paid professional firefighter workforce, which has a high rating from third party insurance rating agencies, Stern said. “For those people who think the fire department is somehow deficient in terms of safety, I think they should think again,” Stern sai.

svaughan@hearstmediact.com; 203-842-2638; @SophieCVaughan1

Sophie Vaughan|Reporter, Stamford Advocate