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Conn. leaders call for review of FD that lessened EMS requirements

Leaders in Wallingford will have a review done to look at inefficiencies and problems in the fire department

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A Wallingford Fire Department ambulance.

Wallingford Fire Department/Facebook

Journal Inquirer

WALLINGFORD, Conn. — The town will conduct an independent review of the fire department to find operational issues and inefficiencies that town council members say may have led to a high turnover in fire chiefs in the past several years.

The approval this week followed a tense discussion, as interim fire chief Samuel Wilson III argued he felt that the review wasn’t necessary, but didn’t outright reject having one because he personally felt the review would only find that the department was operating effectively.

Both councilors and fire administrators were frustrated as the conversation around having a review is something that has persisted for several years.

“As your fire administrators it seems we have been unable to provide the entire council with the confidence needed in the direction of the Wallingford fire department,” Wilson said. “And that is despite statistical analysis and analytical data highlighting the department’s successes, being recognized by the state of Connecticut as the leading EMS agency of the year — we were the best.”

“This type of review typically happens when there is a vote of no confidence from the labor union, or the town believes its fire administrators are incompetent in their duties,” he added. “I do not believe this outcome that a department-wide study review would produce any solutions and only lead to more uncertainty.”

Wallingford opted to remove the one year of experience qualification from future applications to open the EMS positions up to a broader pool of applicants

Fire department officials consented to the council’s desire for a study, but there seemed to be lingering concern from the fire administration about its necessity in the first place, as Wilson stated that the discussions about the department’s ongoing operations are already being had and should be relayed to the council, and he felt their findings would be no different than those from any outside firm or individual in that respect.

“These are all things we’re going to talk about,” he said. “What else is there to talk about? And if this is not going to get us to where inevitably we need to go, I don’t want to say we’re wasting our time, but we’re going to be back here again having the same dialogue. Let’s get off the eggshells and let us just find a solution together.”

Discussion about a review was reignited late last month by board chairman Joseph Marrone who sought approval from the council to consult with former fire chief Peter Struble , now a senior lecturer at the University of New Haven , to get advice on how to proceed and who to consult for the study.

His concerns were raised after prior chief Joseph Czentnar retired from his post as chief in April after 32 years, and only three years after becoming chief. It was also felt that his predecessor Richard Heidgerd left the department after a relatively short time, having served for seven years from 2014 to 2021, sparking concerns about administrative issues within the department.

That is in light of another controversy with the department this year regarding Czentnar’s decision before his retirement to reduce the work experience requirements for EMS workers, which sparked heated discussions on Facebook and received hundreds of comments and shares. Many were critical with the decision to reduce the qualifications, along with the department’s low pay rate for the hours that EMTs are expected to work, especially when compared to the competitive rates of private EMT services like Hunter’s Ambulance.

The council reasserted however that their concerns weren’t over the department’s current level or quality of service, but about the operations management.

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“The concern has always been around the operational finance part. Are we as efficient and effective as we should be on a broad scale with this staffing model?” asked Republican Town Councilor Tom Laffin . “It’s just really frustrating to get to this point and still not have all those answers.”

In response Wilson asked Laffin if he thought the fire administration was incompetent, which Laffin refuted, saying the purpose of the study would be to answer specific questions the council has about the current operations of the department. Wilson said he supposed the review insofar as the council wished to pursue it, but felt that it wouldn’t find any meaningful results.

Democratic Council Member Vincent Testa Jr . said that regardless of how the council tried to frame it, moving ahead with the review would make it seem as if they were questioning the department’s competence. He said that if there was an outstanding issue it would lie with the public safety department, which the fire department reports to, noting they’ve had no reason to question the handling of the public safety administration so far.

“If there was that much of a concern, we’d have a lot to talk about,” Testa said. “The problem is everyone is tap dancing, we’re tap dancing because we’re afraid to say the wrong thing.”

He added he felt the department knew its own operations best, and that while the council should be given the outlet to ask questions, he expressed uncertainty about bringing in an outside party.

Republican Autumn Allinson meanwhile supported going through with the study because she wanted to bring an end to the constant conversation circling around the department every few years and put the issue to bed, even if they found nothing new out of it.

Despite the back and forth, the councilors seemed to be receptive to that idea, of finally quelling any future concerns of the department, and unanimously agreed to move forward with the review to assess what, if anything, needs to be changed about department operations.

No firm or cost has been settled on yet.

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