STAMFORD – The Board of Finance unanimously opposed it, but the Board of Representatives overwhelmingly supported it, so after four tumultuous years, city firefighters have a contract.
With the help of a mediator, the Stamford Professional Fire Fighters Association reached a deal that covers July 1, 2019 through June 30, 2025.
The years without an agreement had firefighters sparring with department and city officials.
Firefighters filed lawsuits alleging racism, favoritism, contract violations, abuse of the pension system, and abuse of the test scoring system. They took votes of no confidence in department leaders, and charged that the city breached binding arbitration, which got the attention of the international union.
Several of the cases are still pending, even as longtime department leaders left. In the last four months, the chief fire marshal, Bud Seely, and the fire chief, Trevor Roach, retired. Each was replaced with an interim chief.
As elected officials this week dug into the details of the six-year, $17.4 million contract, which includes $7.4 million in retroactive wage increases, information emerged about the status of firefighting in Stamford, where tall apartment buildings have been rising out of the ground at a rapid pace.
Elected leaders from the two boards reacted differently to the information.
Generous, or necessary?
Board of Finance members said they were appalled by the “generosity” of the deal, and what they described as a dearth of financial evidence to support it. In their role as advisors to the Board of Representatives on union contracts, finance board members said the contract should go back to the bargaining table.
Representatives had questions – two abstained from voting – but 26 approved the firefighter deal, and only three rejected it.
They ultimately agreed with arguments made by Interim Fire Chief Rex Morris and Assistant Fire Chief Mike Robles that the department must expand as development continues unabated.
“A firefighter in this city has to be able to operate in a high-rise apartment building, and also be able to set up a rural water supply in North Stamford, bringing in tankers from other districts,” Morris said. “It’s a very unique situation. But this area, firefighting, has kept static as the city has grown.”
Morris began his five decades in the fire service as a volunteer with Stamford’s Belltown Fire Department on Dorlen Road. He joined the Fire Department of New York in 1973, worked in all five New York City boroughs, earned more than two dozen meritorious awards, and ended his FDNY career as captain of Rescue Co. 1, an elite unit of firefighters trained for complex rescue operations.
Morris was hired as an assistant chief in Stamford in 2014.
This week he was asked to explain the need for a contract provision that prompted Board of Finance members to reject the deal, and raised concerns among members of the Board of Representatives.
The provision would double the number of deputy chiefs, and deputy chief aides, from one set per shift to two. There are four shifts, so the provision adds four deputy chiefs and four aides to the fire department’s roster, costing at least $1.1 million more per year, according to the city’s calculations.
It’s what the city needs, Morris said.
Firefighting by the numbers
“In New England, the 12 largest cities have at least two deputy chiefs on duty at all times, and most have three,” Morris said.
Deputy chiefs respond to incidents to which three or more fire companies are called. Establishing command of a fire or rescue scene with that many responders is crucial to safety and a successful outcome, Morris said.
Because Stamford has one deputy chief on duty for each shift, the response time is longer, and the number of firefighters to manage is larger, he said.
“It’s called span of control. Ours is 54 people. For cities around us – New Haven, Hartford, Bridgeport – that number is in the 20s,” Morris said. “We’re an anomaly.”
Stamford is geographically large – about 38 square miles, he and Robles said. Other cities are much smaller, meaning firefighters can reach points quicker.
They’re right. According to the CTData Collaborative, New Haven is 19 square miles – half the size of Stamford – though the population is only slightly less. And Bridgeport, the Connecticut city with the biggest population, is geographically tiny at 16 square miles.
The scope of territory is less of an issue for firefighters, who are deployed from firehouses throughout the city, the chiefs said. Firefighter response times vary from roughly three to five minutes.
But it is a problem for the sole deputy chief on duty, who must respond from Central Firehouse on Main Street downtown, Robles said.
“For the incident commander to get to Springdale takes about seven minutes. For Turn of River, it’s 10 minutes. For the upper portion of Long Ridge, it’s 15 minutes,” Robles said.
The first of first responders
A fire scene, car accident, water rescue or other incident can erode into confusion with no one in charge, the chiefs said.
“In certain areas of the city, we can have four fire companies there before the deputy chief arrives,” said Morris.
The Stamford Fire Department responds to about 12,000 incidents a year, and deputy chiefs are called to about 2,000 of them, he said.
It’s crucial for incident commanders to arrive quickly, the chiefs said. Structure fires, the most serious, can double in size every 30 seconds, experts say. In a house fire, residents who get out safely usually do so in the first two minutes.
Stamford has about 60 structure fires a year, the chiefs said. With an incident commander in place, firefighters can knock down a structure fire in 20 minutes, they said.
“We can put them out efficiently, but it requires command and control,” Morris said.
The last time the fire department increased staffing was 2016, he said.
“The city’s gotten bigger, and the buildings are more complex. Complexity of buildings is what I think about all the time,” Morris said.
“We have more buildings taller than five stories than any two cities in the state. We have one of the highest numbers of tall buildings in all of New England. That’s all they’re putting up in Stamford,” Morris said. “I came from the fire department in New York City. We have to think that way now.”
This story has been updated to clarify total contract figures