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Saturday, November 17 Local

Fire department aims for faster responses in northwest Greenwich

GREENWICH — Data compiled by the Greenwich Fire Department shows a stark contrast in call response times between the north side of the community and the southern end of town.

Response-time data from 2017 and 2018, obtained through a Freedom of Information request, shows that residents and business owners in Cos Cob and Riverside can expect to see a fire truck rolling up to the scene of a call or alarm in two to three minutes. In the north end of town, however, particularly the northwest corner along the King Street corridor, it can take 10 minutes or more for a fire truck to arrive.

Firefighters “absolutely” make a maximum effort to get to the scene of a fire as quickly as possible, Assistant Fire Chief Robert Kick said. But due to the lack of a fire station in the northwestern, now the subject of renewed discussions among town leaders, response times lag substantially.

“The standard is four minutes for travel,” Kick said. “And the standard is to meet that 90 percent of the time. Obviously, we do have many areas where we meet the standard. In the northwest quadrant, we never meet that standard.”

At a house fire on Meadow Road in Riverside in May, for instance, a fire unit arrived on scene in one minute and 30 seconds. By contrast, at a fire on Locust Road off King Street in August, it took nine minutes and 56 seconds, according to the fire department.

2018 Structure fire response times

1 Cotton Tail Road

Jan. 17

5:54

5 Perkins Road

Jan. 21

1:49

522 Putnam Ave.

Jan. 22

4:11

18 Indian Chase Drive

Jan. 31

5:53

218 Bible Street

March 2

2:43

168 John St.

March 3

3:48

48 Sunshine Ave.

March 8

5:14

918 North St.

April 22

8:24

44 Sinawoy Road

April 26

3:05

14 Meadow Road

May 15

1:30

29 Bible Street

May 19

3:49

15 Palmer Street

May 28

2:30

30 Field Point Circle

June 1

5:34

10 Mead Point Drive

June 25

7:44

19 St. Roch Ave.

July 2

4:08

453 Post Road

July 19

0.49

2 Locust Road

Aug. 9

9.56

Source: Greenwich Fire Department

When looking at the response times for car fires, another wide gap is apparent. A car fire on I-95 in January 2017 triggered a fire vehicle’s arrival in three minutes and five seconds. For a car fire on the Merritt Parkway in June of last year, it took 10 minutes and 41 seconds for a unit to arrive on-scene.

Response time is measured by mobile digital devices inside the trucks. Some vehicles in the fleet don’t have the digital devices installed, and in those cases, the dispatcher will mark the time using radio transmissions, Kick said.

Members of the Representative Town Meeting and other town leaders have been studying the problem this summer and fall. But the issue isn’t new. Previous efforts to fund a new fire facility in the northwest corner, or even study the need for one, have failed to advance.

“In the fire department administration, we’ve identified the northwest quadrant, where we’re not meeting the minimum standards, ever. We want to correct that problem, and our suggestion is to build a station there, so we can better protect the citizens of the area,” said Kick.

First Selectman Peter Tesei put money for a study of town fire services, to determine whether the station was needed, in his budget in 2017, but the RTM voted to cut the funding. It was the latest setback in a long-fought effort to get fire coverage in the northwest.

The issue of response times is one of deep concern to many residents of the area. The fire on upper King Street this past summer gave renewed attention to the issue of fire safety.

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It was deeply unsettling to Ilana Grady and her children.

“As a parent, you want your kids to be safe and feel safe,” she said, adding she has been working to assuage their anxieties. “Hopefully having a fire station close to us will happen sooner rather than later. Knowing that the solution isn’t a reality yet, I had my girls write poems to focus on how amazing the firefighters were.”

The RTM appears to be softening its resistance to a new station. Last month, its members approved a nonbinding, sense of the meeting resolution calling for Tesei to put funding for a new station in the 2019-20 municipal budget. The resolution does not obligate the RTM to pass the actual funding, however.

“If we don’t reduce the response time by us, someone will pay the price with their life,” said Grady, an educator. “You can’t put a price on someone’s life. Thank goodness some of our neighbors realized how serious of a concern that fire response time is in our neighborhood. They have been actively working to rectify the situation.”

Allen Williams, president of the Northwest Greenwich Association, has been lobbying for years for a new fire station in the neighborhood. Maps and data released by the fire department put the issue into clear, concise terms, he said. A map depicting response times was part of a recent presentation to the RTM.

“I believe the GFD response times map and data has helped open and changed some minds,” Williams said. “It has certainly opened many pairs of eyes on the RTM to the fact that there is, and for many years has been, an obvious fire protection deficiency in the northwestern backcountry.”

The first step will be getting a concept for a new station approved, he said. Then town and fire officials will have to find a suitable piece of land. Several possible sites have been pegged and rejected in past years. Most recently, Tesei in 2016 proposed buying 4.76 acres on King Street from the Fairview Country Club, an idea that won approvals from the Fire Department, finance board and Planning and Zoning Commission, only to be shot down by the RTM.

“The siting decision will likely be a hotly contested hurdle,” Williams said.

Counter ideas that have been raised in the past are likely to be aired again, he said — such as forming affiliations with nearby Westchester County fire departments — which Williams called “worn-out alternative solutions.”

“Yes, it will be a substantial investment,” he said. “But it’s an essential and expected town service. It should have been started years ago as the corridor's larger properties were developed into additional assisted-living centers, larger private schools and houses of worship.”

The country club property is still available, but Tesei has said he is going into the new process with an open mind toward potential options as some in town have questioned whether the site is the best location for a new station. Tesei said he would continue to work to find a solution.

“The Greenwich fire services response travel times to incidents in the northwest quadrant continue to be more than double (average 8-12 minutes) the recognized national minimum standard,” he wrote in an email. “The town administration is in the process of addressing the RTM-approved sense of the meeting resolution. We have engaged stakeholders ... to uniformly collect all of the questions members may have so a unified and thorough response is given.”

rmarchant@greenwich time.com

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