In 2002 MMA Consulting Group, Inc. of Boston issued an Operational Review of the New Haven Fire Department, recommending a plan to improve the department’s provision of medical services, internal organization and future leadership.
Six years later, as the city faces a strained budget that last month led to the dismissal of 34 municipal employees, MMA’s review has resurfaced in discussions about reorganizing the fire department with cost reductions and changing citizen needs in mind.
At a public hearing before the Board of Aldermen’s Finance and Public Safety committees Tuesday night, the city’s chief administrator officer, Rob Smuts ’01, and New Haven Fire Department Chief Michael Grant reported to the aldermen the Chief Administrator’s Office’s ideas for the fire department’s potential reorganization. While Grant stressed the need to maintain current staffing levels, Smuts offered cost-saving ideas for restructuring the department — such as devoting more resources to medical services rather than firefighting — in order to better serve the city. The committees voted to give the CAO 90 days to create and submit a detailed strategy proposal for the restructuring.
Smuts first outlined the goals he said were necessary no matter what shape the potential redevelopment takes: preservation or enhancement of both fire-protection and medical services; a net positive impact for New Haven taxpayers, to be obtained through cost reduction and revenue enhancement; and a “workable transition” in the undertaking of whatever measures are chosen to be part of the reorganization.
Smuts said he does “not think it would make sense to reduce staffing” in order to cut costs in the fire department, where two of the 34 city employees laid off last month worked.
Echoing Smuts, Grant said the dangerous and time-sensitive nature of firefighting and emergency response requires that personnel numbers stay put.
He explained that most New Haven buildings are three-story, wood-framed structures that, in the event of a fire, require firefighters to cover every area of the building in a specific time period in order to evacuate people and control the fire at the same time. “These are all positions that have to be filled,” Grant said.
In addition, New Haven’s universities, hospitals and port — through which 85 percent of Connecticut’s gas is transferred — demand a full fire force, Grant said.
Even small fires — like the one at the Omni Hotel last month — require full squads, he said. And, until fire sprinkler systems are installed universally, “The fires are going to be just as big as they were before,” Grant said.
Smuts said potential restructuring strategies range from the small-scale — such as billing medical insurers for medical services the fire department already provides — to the large-scale — for example, reducing the number of city fire engines and in turn increasing the number of department employees trained in Advanced Life Support, or paramedic skills.
Such a reshuffling, Smuts said, would “maintain or actually increase the number of people who are free at any one moment” to be “on the scene” of an emergency. And the money saved from the shift would surpass the cost of training and employing additional employees, he said.
Roughly 85 percent of the department’s calls in New Haven require only medical services, Grant said, whereas only 15 percent require fire suppression — a point Ward 13 Alderman and Public Safety Committee Chair Alex Rhodeen emphasized as a necessary consideration in the plans for restructuring the department.
The goal of the reorganization, Ward 28 Alderman Mordechai Sandman said, should involve “combining resources in the department to better serve the needs that are currently out there.”
Grant said after the meeting that he “would totally support” any department reorganization that would enhance fire and emergency services as long as the department still has a sufficient number of staff members.
“I don’t want to get to the point where we’re providing services but don’t have the resources to do it safely,” he said.
Smuts said he will create a working group, comprising aldermen, NHFD representatives, union leaders and himself, to investigate the reorganization further. The aldermanic committees voted to “get the clock ticking” on the plans, as Sandman said, by approving Smuts’ request to report back to the committees in 90 days.
The hearing ended with testimony from three citizens, including Gerald Mallison, the fire department’s former supervisor of management services, who was laid off last month in the city’s job cuts. Mallison, who said he saved the department millions of dollars in his work over the past six years, requested that the Board of Aldermen restore his position.