A plan to eliminate most of the UConn Health Center Fire Department on June 1 to save $3 million got little support Tuesday from the 16 speakers at the first public meeting about the plan since the announcement last week.
Bill Perkins, a UConn Health firefighter from 1982 until 2009 when he retired as an assistant chief, said the department has special training beyond what Farmington municipal firefighters have to deal with the medical conditions, unusual equipment, biological material, powerful medicines and the sprawling layout on the massive campus that gets 9,000 workers and visitors daily.
UConn Health's plans to shut down fire suppression, do away with 16 firefighter jobs and have the town assume the firefighting duties "is like mixing apples and oranges. It doesn't work," he said.
He was one of many speakers - some current firefighters, other retired and a few center medical employees - who said it's foolish to scrap the fire department started in 1971 when the center first opened. Speakers said the complex is like a small city, with many confusing buildings and unusual dangers that a municipal fire department could not easily assume without a lot of training.
"You're removing a fire department that knows the center extremely well and is highly trained," said Richard Hart, a Waterbury deputy fire chief. He said getting rid of the trained staff "is a kneejerk decision" to save money at the expense of public safety.
Several speakers who arrived late in the session said they came from a Farmington Town Council meeting where people also opposed the UConn Health Fire Department reduction. Speakers said town officials expressed concern about the scope of having municipal firefighters become first responders to fire calls at the huge complex.
Glenn Terlecki, head of the Connecticut Fire and Police Union, said the town department "is ill-prepared to take over UConn Health.
Stephen McDuell, president of the CFPU local representing the UConn firefighters, said UConn officials have not met with the town to work out details of providing public safety.
During the meeting, UConn Health CEO Andrew Agwunobi stressed that the plan will cut the staff but about a half dozen people will remain to ensure complex safety, do planning and work with other fire department.
"We are not getting rid of the fire department. We are changing the model to make it more efficient," Agwunobi told the crowd of about 80 people.
The 55-minute session ended with Agwunobi telling people he will go back and discuss the night's comments with UConn Health administrators involved in the plan. He said the staff will soon propose its plan to Farmington and work with the town on any concerns it may have about assuming fire coverage for the complex.
Last week, UConn Health announced it would eliminate its on-campus fire department "due to ongoing fiscal pressures," according to a letter to the department from Agwunobi.
Farmington officials met in December with UConn Health representatives and are planning to do so again, Town Manager Kathleen Eagen said in an email Feb. 22. Eagen said it's unclear at this time what the full impact of the proposal will be on the town.
Agwunobi would not provide specific details about the plan, saying many decisions have yet to be finalized. He could not give a time line for when a firmer plan would be released, only that it will be effective June 1.
He emphasized, though, that no plan will be enacted without the town of Farmington's approval.
Agwunobi said UConn Health has committed to helping those impacted find alternative employment, he said.