HomeTop StoriesSonde underlines the need for a centralized fire brigade

Sonde underlines the need for a centralized fire brigade

April 15—EAST LYME — The recent workplace harassment investigation into part-time firefighter Chris Taylor, who also serves as volunteer chief of the Flanders Fire Department, underscores the need to bring the city’s two independent fire departments under professional leadership.

That’s according to First Selectman Dan Cunningham, who founded the unified East Lyme Fire Service in February. He said entities that spend taxpayer money need municipal oversight.

“And there was no oversight or accountability, so that was one of the biggest reasons why we started looking at making the change,” he said.

Cunningham designated Fire Marshal Bill Bundy and Deputy Fire Marshal Erik Quinn as acting chief and assistant. The first selectman said he created the positions based on the authority granted to him in the city charter to fill temporary positions.

Taylor was on leave for more than two months while an investigator hired by the city looked into firefighter David Swinburne’s allegations that Taylor was hostile and disparaging during a Jan. 17 interaction. Swinburne said a profanity-laced tirade came after he raised concerns about the chief being lax when it comes to purchasing and maintaining equipment.

According to the investigation report, Quinn said in a Jan. 15 email to Bundy that he had heard complaints that missing equipment would appear to be damaged or destroyed after Taylor said he “borrowed” it, and that hardware stores would sell items such as vehicle fluid and fluid would buy. pocket knives were missing.

Quinn said Taylor also instructed his chief officers to stop working with the Niantic Fire Department and to cancel all joint meetings and training. He reported that multiple members said Taylor did not respond to calls, did not address issues within the building and “did not provide any leadership.”

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Taylor was elected head of Flanders in 2021. He had worked as a deputy fire marshal and then as a fire marshal before resigning in 2019, three weeks before he was arrested by Connecticut State Police for allegedly stealing more than $13,000 from the New London County Fire. Marshal’s Association. Taylor previously told The Day that the matter had been resolved through the courts and the money had been refunded. Records have since been cleared.

Cunningham said addressing the procurement and maintenance issues highlighted in the report was not within the scope of the harassment investigation. But he said his efforts to streamline the city’s fire department will ensure such problems don’t persist.

“That will all be centralized. We will adhere to a purchasing policy, bills will be paid as they come in, and there will be no opportunity for all these anomalies.”

‘Giving everyone a voice’

The two fire departments, as well as East Lyme Ambulance, have long operated separately from each other and from the city.

There are currently ten full-time paid firefighters, with one added in the proposed 2024-2025 budget.

The idea of ​​changing the volunteer structure that dates back 100 years at Niantic and 67 years in Flanders is controversial. And it’s not a unique problem: Tensions between volunteers, paid firefighters and city leaders are evident in countless towns and cities across the region that previously relied on volunteers.

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The friction comes as cities across the region grapple with declining volunteer numbers and the unrest associated with changes in interpretations of the Fair Labor Standards Act. The law says, in part, that city employees cannot volunteer to provide their employers with the same services they are paid for.

Bill G. Rix, a lifelong member and former chief of the Flanders Fire Department, emphasized in a telephone interview Monday that he and other members are not opposed to the idea of ​​a full-time, paid fire chief.

“We’re really not,” he said. “If we had been consulted, we could have changed our bylaws within the department to accommodate the new fire chief. But that was never thought about. We were just an afterthought.”

He said he didn’t know about Cunningham’s centralization efforts until he read about it in the newspaper.

“It’s clear this is all about money,” he said. ‘In his own words, he told us that he had hired people from the city to save money. That’s fine. I understand that. I understand. But no one else in town got a chance to apply for the job.”

Cunningham’s proposal combines the roles of fire marshal and fire marshal, rather than hiring for each separately. The combined position is expected to cost $117,000 in the proposed budget for city operations, compared to $93,830 in the current budget for fire chief alone.

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The deputy fire chief/fire marshal’s salary is scheduled to be $105,000, up from $68,000 this year.

Bundy, a retired state trooper, told the Board of Finance last month that he worked in the fire service for 42 years, including 26 years as an active volunteer in Montville. There he held positions as fire lieutenant, fire captain, training officer and incident commander. He said he is certified as a firefighter, fire instructor, fire officer and hazmat technician.

Before retiring from the Connecticut State Police, Bundy served as commander of the Fire and Explosion Investigation Unit.

Cunningham said the process now involves funding the new East Lyme Fire Department from the proposed 2024-2025 city operations budget, making the acting positions permanent through a vote of the Board of Selectmen, and passing an ordinance is being drawn up to record the details of the new fire brigade. organization structure.

Cunningham said there will be an opportunity for comment from residents as the Board of Selectmen reviews each phase of that process.

“I’m trying to transition from something that’s done for my own benefit to something that’s transparent and gives everyone a voice,” he said.

While Rix would like to see an open interview process for the permanent fire chief and assistant chief positions, he said it is a “foregone conclusion” that Bundy and Quinn will be appointed.

That’s why he said he will vote against the budget if a referendum takes place in May, he said.

“It’s the only voice we have,” he said.

e.regan@theday.com

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