The Southport Volunteer Fire Department has decided to fight what it deems as fire with a fire of its own, as demonstrated by its recent filing of a lawsuit against the Town of Fairfield.
According to Roberto Tschudin Lucheme, an attorney representing the SVFD, the lawsuit was filed in response to the resolution recently adopted by the Fairfield Fire Commission, which has effectively placed the Southport volunteers out of service.
The lawsuit was filed early Friday and asks a Bridgeport Superior Court judge to order the town to dispatch the SVFD to emergency calls.
According to Lucheme, the intent of filing the lawsuit is to get the SVFD back into service as soon as possible. "We're looking to get the dispatch restored, not just for ourselves, but for the people we serve," Lucheme said yesterday. "For us, the ultimate goal is to work as a cohesive fire department, but the town seems more intent on exerting power and control rather than solving a problem."
But although the SVFD is scheduled to face off against the town during a hearing scheduled for Nov. 6, Lucheme is hopeful that the town will work together with the volunteers so that the department can be placed back in service as soon as possible. "I'd rather see a solution worked out long before we go to court," Lucheme said.
"The public should know that we [SVFD] are ready, willing and able to respond, and to the extent we can get our dispatch restored we will be there to answer their call," Lucheme added.
Meanwhile, the lawsuit has sparked a negative response from town officials involved in the dispute, including First Selectman Ken Flatto. "My response is pretty strong, and I'm very disappointed in what I consider a preposterous and juvenile action," Flatto said yesterday. "There are a few individuals that seem to be taking the attitude that we can do whatever we want, regardless of the town's safety."
Yesterday, Flatto said he is confident that the court will dismiss the claim against the town. "I have no doubt that our attorney will prove that this lawsuit has no merit," he said. "The lawsuit is alleging that they can do whatever they want, without any organizational structure."
According to Lucheme, the dispute between the SVFD and the town came to a head following the Oct. 12 meeting of the Fire Commission at which the commissioners unanimously adopted a resolution mandating that all volunteer departments comply with stringent training and certification requirements.
"This lawsuit is based on the fact that when a Southport resident dials 911, they are entitled to have the SVFD be dispatched to their home," Lucheme said.
But according to Town Attorney Richard Saxl, the new policy officially puts in writing that there can be no dispatch of any volunteer vehicle until the town receives all of the required documentation, which includes a checklist of training requirements and certifications for each volunteer firefighter.
According to the resolution, all active fire volunteers must have all of the required current and valid certifications, with up-to-date copies on file with the town.
In addition to the list of training requirements, the policy mandates that any truck dispatched by the town must be manned with only active volunteer members, all of whom must have on file with the town all required training documents. In addition, at least one volunteer must be certified as an EMT and at least one qualified driver with the appropriate license shall drive any such truck.
The resolution effectively placed both the Southport and Stratfield volunteer departments temporarily out of commission and unable to be dispatched or respond to all emergency calls, according to Fire Chief Richard Felner.
Since the meeting, the Stratfield volunteer department has been restored to service after several members turned in required documentation to the town, according to Felner, but Southport remains unable to be dispatched until full documentation is submitted.
During the Oct. 12 meeting, Flatto explained that the intent of the proposed policy was not to put either of the volunteer departments out of service. "The intent here is not to deprive anyone," Flatto said. "The intent is to protect the town."
Complete and up-to-date training and certification are important not only for the protection of the volunteers, but also for the protection of the residents they are serving in an emergency situation, Flatto explained. Additionally, the documentation is for the protection of the town, which is liable for any worker's compensation claim submitted by a volunteer who is injured.
But according to Lucheme, the SVFD "objects to the Town's interference with the dispatch" of the department. "The interference with our dispatch protocols is nothing more than a power grab," he said in a statement released last week. "We do not object to any of the 'standards' outlined by the career fire department and ratified by the Town. We do object to changing the rules in the middle of the game."
But Flatto explained that SVFD has been given adequate time to comply with requests to submit the required paperwork. "I never in my wildest dreams thought that Southport would consider suing over their own inability to provide the required documentation," he said.
The repeated requests for paperwork eventually came to a head following a Sept. 1 letter from Saxl to the SVFD, which stated the department had until Sept. 30 to submit all required paperwork to the town.
According to Fire Commission Chairman Ralph Money, Saxl's Sept. 1 letter followed an ongoing series of requests from both Saxl and the commission. However, Southport repeatedly failed to turn in complete documentation, which was in direct violation of the commission's policy that "no individual or unit, either career or volunteer, will be dispatched to an emergency scene unless documentation is current," Money said.
But during an interview on Sept. 27, SVFD Chief Peter Kopko had indicated that his department intended to fully comply with the request by submitting full training documentation for each of its members.
Last week, Felner said that it was unclear how many individual members of the SVFD had submitted complete documentation citing their qualifications to the town. Felner explained that the town's Human Resources Department is "in the process" of reviewing records for the department.
Yesterday, Lucheme was also uncertain how many of the SVFD's members had submitted complete documentation to the town.
But during the Sept. 27 interview, Kopko said he completely understands and agrees with the importance of proper training and certification, as they are consistent with the standards of his own department. "My standards are, if you're not qualified to ride, you don't get on that truck," he said. "No one would ever go on the truck if they are not properly certified."
Prior to the commission's approval of the policy, Lucheme urged the commission to table the decision for 30 days in order to allow Southport adequate time to obtain and submit all required paperwork. The reasoning for requesting this delay, he said, was because the town has been inconsistent in funding the training that it has provided the SVFD.
"The Town failed to offer training this year as they have always provided in the past," Lucheme said. "If they are simply trying to shift the financial burden to us, then it would be nice if they would just come out and say so. Then we won't wait for promised training or medical exams, and we'll go get it ourselves."
But according to Flatto, the SVFD has been offered numerous opportunities to sign up for various training courses offered by the career department. He added that the SVFD has been unresponsive and has not taken advantage of these opportunities.
However, Flatto was hopeful that a consensus could be reached between the SVFD and the career department, so that the volunteers could continue "the long tradition of helping the town."
Although the volunteer department is not being dispatched to emergency calls, Felner emphasized that the Fairfield Fire Department remains in service at both the Southport and Stratfield stations and will continue to provide full protection to residents.
The Southport volunteer department, also known as Squad 14, has aided the career department in responding to emergency situations since 1895, while the Stratfield volunteer department has been in service since 1920. Both the career firefighters and the volunteers occupy the fire stations located at 69 Main St. in Southport and 400 Jackman Ave. in Fairfield.