Hot seat: Westport officials get schooled in firefighting
The heat of the municipal budget season took on literal significance Saturday for elected and appointed officials from three area communities as fire personnel put them through a series of real training exercises during "FireOps 101" at the Fairfield Regional Fire School.
The training program was hosted by the Fairfield, Stratford and Westport firefighters' associations at the One Rod Highway training center.
Several officials said they gained a better understanding of what their town's fire services personnel go through and some said the training may influence their vote on future fire budgets and allocation of funding for specialized apparatus.
"There's only so much you can learn sitting behind a desk in a board room. To see what these men and women go through every day is pretty special and invaluable when you're trying to make decisions," said Tom Flynn, chairman of the Fairfield Board of Finance.
"Experience really doesn't compare to any training video or any meeting or a piece of paper with information on it. It's helpful to have experience in mind when you're making decisions. It gives you perspective," said Cristin McCarthy Vahey, a member of Fairfield's Representative Town Meeting. McCarthy Vahey said she thought she had respect for fire personnel in the past, "and I did. But this is a whole new level of respect," she said after a strenuous and realistic exercise.
After classroom training that included a brief film and safety lecture the municipal officials participated in drills that had them fighting a live structure fire, practicing forcible entry into a building for search and rescue, ventilating a pitched roof, using the jaws of life in a mock motor vehicle accident, and performing CPR. The novices wore fire suits, helmets and gear, representing only some of the equipment that the professionals would wear and carry on the job.
"This is the first time they're wearing firefighter turnout gear. There's a little anxiety the first time you put it on. When you put that mask on it's a new and life-changing experience," said Bob Smith, president of the firefighters' union, Local 1426 in Fairfield.
The intense heat, nearly zero visibility and heavy smoke in one exercise that had participants carrying a hose up a flight of stairs in the "smoke house" or "burn building," proved too much for one Fairfield official, who had to be checked out by firefighters and emergency medical technicians on the scene. Although the man chose to resume participating in the drill, he was later taken to a local hospital. Fire officials said it was strictly a precautionary measure.
"It was very intense, very intense," said Mike Tetreau, a member of Fairfield's Board of Finance. "I would hate to be these guys. You can't have an off day with something like this," Tetreau said.
"This is really valuable. It drives home the point of how dangerous and challenging this job is. I experienced extreme heat and smoke. The walls were very hot. The handrail on the stairs was very hot. Pulling a fully-charged hose line up the stairs and around a corner got my heart beating real fast," said Felix Giannini, a fire commissioner in Fairfield. "It was very safely done. I didn't feel like I was in any danger. We had three or four or five firefighters watching our back," he said.
Smith said this is the third year firefighters have sponsored the fire operations training to municipal officials. Fairfield and Stratford have participated in all three. Westport's Fire Department participated for the first time on Saturday.
Fairfield Fire Chief Richard Felner said the FireOps 101 provides municipal officials with insight into what they do and a greater understanding of what they need to do their job, "and I commend them for showing the interest."
"These people make decisions on every aspect of our job: the equipment that we use, the trucks that we drive, the gear that we wear. That's all bought through the budget process in the municipalities. If we can give them a sense of what it's like to be a firefighter, at decision time they have a better idea why we're asking for what we're asking," Smith said.
Giannini noted that the Fairfield RTM rejected the three-year fire contract last July, with the deadlock now likely headed to arbitration. "I found that very disconcerting. This (fire operations) program would change the minds of just about anybody who did not support that contract," he said.
"The reality is we're all in the same boat. We've all got similar financial issues with the labor agreement and contracts. With the way the economy is people are concerned about how their money is spent and how we operate. There's a lot of misconceptions about what a fire department is and what we do on a daily basis," said Westport Fire Lt. Mike Kronick.
"In this next budget I think it's going to be extremely difficult just to keep what we have to maintain, never mind improve. We've already made reductions from this year's budget and last. If any more cuts are made it will affect how we deliver our emergency services," said Westport Fire Chief Chris Ackley.