Tag Archives: Westport Fire Department

Volunteer Firefighters Fill A Need — And Need You!

Westport’s fire department is older than Westport itself.

The volunteer Saugatuck Fire Company was incorporated in 1832 — 3 years before the town did the same. Equipment consisted of one hand engine.

In 1859, Westporters formed Compo Engine Company #2. Almost immediately they saved a lumber yard and adjoining buildings, when a candle factory caught fire.

Five years later Vigilant Engine Company #3 was organized on Wilton Road, in part because of the Post Road drawbridge. When it was up, engines could not cross the river.

The Vigilant Firehouse on Wilton Road, circa 1977.

Main Street, Pioneer Hook & Ladder, and the Saugatuck Hose Company followed.

In the early 1900s E.T. Bedford donated money and land for the Greens Farms Company. After World War II, the Coleytown Company was formed to serve that rapidly expanding part of town.

All those firefighters were volunteers.

The career department was established in 1929, with 2 paid firefighters. The first paid chief was hired in 1937.

But volunteers served vital functions, particularly as the town grew.

Gradually, volunteer companies folded. The only firehouses that remain — besides the Post Road headquarters — are on Riverside Avenue, Easton Road and Center Street. All are staffed by career firefighters.

The Saugatuck firehouse. The sign still says “Hose Co.”

Volunteers remain active. They’re still important.

But their numbers are dwindling.

Westport has changed. There are more dual-income families, greater demands on time, fewer blue-collar folks residents. At the same time, training demands have increased. Minimum state certification requires 180 hours of classroom and hands-on instruction, plus 24 hours riding a truck every 3 months.

The trend is nationwide.

But Westport needs its volunteers. With so many large and expensive homes, 2 bustling commercial districts, the Post Road, many offices, 3 beaches, Longshore, I-95, the Merritt Parkway and Metro-North, our very professional and well-respected career fire department has a lot to handle.

Westport firefighters respond to 3,500 calls a year — nearly 10 a day. They  include not only fires, but medical calls, motor vehicle accidents, odors, and much more.

Ken Gilbertie is a volunteer. Since joining in the early 1980s, he’s risen to the role of deputy chief of the Westport Volunteer Fire Department. He’s also a civilian dispatcher. He loves what he does.

And he’d like some help.

Ken Gilbertie, at his dispatch station.

“We don’t need muscle power,” the native Westporter says. “Just able-bodied people willing to do hard work.”

There’s no pay. In fact, volunteers must purchase their own protective equipment. Boots, pants, a coat, helmet and gloves can run $1700. The money comes in part from a townwide fundraiser.

What volunteers get is “a load of satisfaction. It’s a great feeling to know you’ve made a significant contribution to someone, on their worst day,” Gilbertie says.

Donna Cohen is a volunteer too. The PR executive and event planner walked in one day and asked how she could help.

“There’s a real team feeling with volunteers,” she notes. “There’s a social aspect too. This is such a good way to give back to the community.”

You know — the community that had not even been named nearly 2 centuries ago, when our first volunteer firefighters banded together to help their neighbors.

(For more information, email kgilbertie@westportct.gov)

No, these firefighters are not posing for the camera during an actual fire. It’s training, using a house that would be torn down. It was donated for the exercise.

Kudos!

Over 1,700 Westporters are still without power. Restoration continues slowly.

Wednesday’s storm — the 2nd in 5 days — took its toll on much of New York and New England.

But as we’re recovering from that double whammy, let’s realize how good we actually have it.

Our public officials and town employees really earned their pay this week. In no particular order, we owe huge thanks to:

Westport Police Department. They’ve been vigilant in responding to calls, assessing damage, helping work crews, and keeping the town safe and secure. They’re stretched thin — but every man and woman on the force responded. (NOTE to impatient citizens: Those traffic barricades are up for a reason. Click on the video from New Jersey below — but beware. It’s gruesome.)

Westport Fire Department. At the height of the storm Wednesday night, they answered literally hundreds of calls. From live wires and fallen trees to actual fires, they covered the town. They were often the first eyes on an incident, and they coordinated expertly with other town offices. On Thursday and through today, they’ve kept going. Their red trucks — and the firefighters on them — are a truly welcome sight. And they seem to be everywhere.

Public Works Department. They’re the guys who are actually out there, working all day and night. They plow the roads, remove the trees, and do all the other dirty work that enables the rest of us to carry on with our lives. It’s tough, demanding, physical work. And they haven’t had a break in days.

First Selectman Jim Marpe. He’s the man at the top. His calm, efficient yet commanding presence has inspired everyone else — at the emergency operations center, and in the field — to do their jobs. Jim believes in public service, and he makes sure every public official serves the town well.

Everyone else in emergency operations too. I don’t know everyone’s names. But quietly and effectively, they managed back-to-back storms with professionalism and care.

Superintendent of schools Colleen Palmer. She had to make difficult, irrevocable, damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t choices about closing school.  That comes with the territory. But she went above and beyond, communicating often and clearly about how and why she made those decisions. Today she threaded the needle — opening school, but not penalizing students for absences, and postponing all tests and quizzes. She “weathered” criticism with grace — and kept thousands of youngsters safe.

School maintenance staffs. They shoveled tons of heavy snow, and did all the other work, to ensure that schools could open today. They were there at the height of the storm. No one saw what they did — but today we noticed how much they did.

I’m sure I’ve forgotten other key men and women in town. If you know anyone I’ve missed, click “Comments” below.

Public Works takes care of downed trees. Police put up barricades. It takes a village to help our town weather 2 storms since last Friday. (Photo/Janette Kinnally)

Nor’easter Keeps Pounding

More dramatic photos from today’s storm:

The Saugatuck River rises close to its banks. (Photo/Robin Gusick)

A flooded parking garage on Riverside Avenue. (Photo/Robin Gusick)

Meanwhile, firefighters raced to Saugatuck Shores. They trudged through cold water, in high winds, to fight a smoky blaze on Canal Road.

Local builder Oliver Wilson rescued a dog from the house, before the fire department arrived. There was no one else inside.

A fire truck navigates flooded streets. (Photo/Gene Borio)

Firefighters trudged through flooded streets to fight the blaze. (Photo/Jeff Manchester)

Joe Valiante’s Badge, George Bush’s Library

Joe Valiante spent 35 years with the Westport Fire Department. He fought some of the town’s toughest fires, and rose through the ranks to become assistant chief.

When he was not working, the 1961 Staples High School graduate rode with New York City’s Rescue 1. Based on 43rd Street near the Intrepid, the elite company faces situations seldom seen in Westport.

But nothing could have prepared them for September 11, 2001.

The next day, Valiante rode with them to the still-smoldering World Trade Center. For a week he worked the bucket brigade, hauling material from the site.

Joe Valiante (center, in white) working at Ground Zero.

Valiante was there 4 days later, when President Bush addressed the volunteers through a bullhorn.

Valiante was back a year later too, on the 1st anniversary of 9/11. In fact, he was in the honor guard (with fellow local firefighter Todd Denke). After the ceremony, Bush stopped to chat.

Joe Valiante and George W. Bush, on the 1st anniversary of 9/11. Just before the photographer took this photo, a Secret Service agent diverted the president’s attention.

Valiante then gave the president his Westport assistant fire chief badge.

The next year, Valiante retired. From time to time, he wondered what became of his gift.

Joe Valiante’s Westport Fire Department badge.

Last January, Valiante took his grandson to Trump Tower. They watched a parade of famous people — Ben Carson, Kellyanne Conway, Senator Joe Manchin and others — head through the lobby to meet the president-elect.

Fox News correspondent John Roberts was there as well. Valiante asked if he knew what happens to the gifts people give to presidents. Roberts told him to contact the George W. Bush Presidential Library, at Southern Methodist University.

Valiante emailed the curator. Then he forgot about it.

A month ago, a library official got back to Valiante. She knew exactly where his Westport badge was.

It’s in the permanent collection.

Joe Valiante has not been down to Dallas to see it. But he doesn’t have to.

Just knowing it’s there makes him proud.

The front page of the New York Post on September 12, 2002. Joe Valiante (white hat) is in the lower right corner.

 

Westporters Fight Domestic Violence

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month.

Westport’s Domestic Violence Task Force wants to make everyone aware of the issue — and what can be done about it.

The group has collected gift certificates from more than a dozen local salons. (One owner donated because her mother was a victim of abuse.) Haircuts and colors help women in shelters start new lives. Some are preparing for job interviews. Others need to change their appearance to avoid abusers.

The salons will be thanked on Saturday, October 14, at the Westport Unitarian Church Voices Cafe. All proceeds from Pierce Pettis’ performance will be donated to the salon drive. (Click here for tickets.)

Meanwhile, this Sunday (October 1), pinwheels will be displayed on Jesup Green. There’s one for every domestic violence call the Police Department received this year.

The chilling reminder that domestic abuse happens in Westport — as it does everywhere — remains on display all month.

Next Tuesday (October 3), volunteers from our police and fire departments will join Domestic Violence Task Force members at the Westport and Greens Farms train stations. They’ll hand out informational palm cards to commuters.

And on Wednesday, October 25 (Unitarian Church, 7 p.m.), Lisa Aronson Fontes — a noted author, therapist, researcher and professor — will discuss coercive control in relationships.

Domestic Violence Awareness Month ends on October 31. Of course, the issue will not go away that day.

But in Westport, concerned citizens are doing all they can to help.

Firefighters Come Through

A dramatic house fire shut down Saugatuck Avenue today, near Saugatuck Shores.

“06880” reader Michelle Benner reports that Westport, Norwalk, Weston, Fairfield and Stamford fire departments — and chiefs — were all there.

The fire burned for over an hour and a half. An hour in, the owners had a fireman pull a vintage red sports car out of the garage.

The Saugatuck Avenue fire today. (Photo/Westport Fire Department)

Stamford’s department arrived with a special truck to refill oxygen tanks.

Eversource came 45 minutes in to cut the line from the utility pole. It took a while because they couldn’t drive  the truck over the hose connected to the hydrant (which was fortunately right across the street from the burning house). The line had to cut it by hand with a long pole, instead of using the cherry picker.

Firefighters brought hoses into the house, and fought the fire from inside. Water shot up out of the roof, as flames and black/brown smoke continued to pour out.

“It was heartbreaking to see,” Michelle says. “Thankfully, it appears no one got hurt.”

“But it was heartwarming to see the firefighters working together, the other towns coming in to help, and how protective the chiefs were of their men.

“The guys who climb out on the ladder to fight the fire from above are especially brave!”

The fire burned for nearly 2 hours. (Photo/Michelle Benner)

Marpe: Police, Fire Pension Contracts Now Up For Ratification

Following this morning’s post on the Westport police union’s stance on pension contract negotiations, 1st Selectman Jim Marpe issued this statement:

Both the police and firefighter union executive boards have reached agreement with the town on their pension contracts, and are presenting them to their membership for ratification.

We value all Westport employees including those in our public safety departments and are pleased that these agreements have been reached.

Ratification or rejection of those pension contracts is the next step. “06880” will report on those votes, when they are taken.

Connector Accident Sends 6 To Hospital

Traffic slowed to a crawl on the Sherwood Island Connector today, after a 3-vehicle accident sent 6 people to the hospital.

The crash — opposite the transfer station — involved a car, a pickup truck and a landscaping truck and trailer.

One of the drivers had to be extricated. Her condition was reported to be serious.

The aftermath of today’s 3-vehicle accident on the Sherwood Island Connector. (Photo/Ryan Gleicher)

Firefighters at work on one of the vehicles in today’s crash. (Photo/Westport Fire Department)

Town Throws Cold Water On Firefighters’ Negotiations

As politicians, taxpayers and other stakeholders debate next year’s town budget, much of the focus is on education. That’s no surprise: It comprises the bulk of our spending; it involves kids and buildings, and everyone has their own school experiences to draw on, good or bad.

But we pay for many other services. Most are less visible than education. Lots of those negotiations take place outside the public eye.

One of those involves firefighters’ benefits and pensions. The other day, Nick Marsan laid out their case. It’s got some surprising twists — like a proposal to take away death benefits for families of firefighters killed in the line of duty. There are also decreases in healthcare for firefighters and their families after retirement.

Nick Marsan (Photo/Laura Weiss for Hearst Connecticut Media)

The firefighters’ pension contract — which is different from the work contract — expired last summer. Marsan — president of the 64-member Westport Uniformed Firefighters Local 1081 — and his team met with town officials for a few negotiating sessions.

After what Marsan calls “a short process,” the town declared an impasse. The contract is now in the hands of state-appointed arbitrators.

The union president is disappointed. “We walked into negotiations expecting the town was not going to change anything for existing personnel,” Marsan says. “We thought we’d be talking about future hires only.” Instead, the town also included current firefighters in their pension proposals.

Marsan says the town “pulled the rug out from people who have been here 25, 30 years. They now might have to make hasty decisions to protect benefits they’ve worked all their careers to achieve. They could lose 6% of what they’d get if they retire now, and possibly cost-of-living benefits.”

The proposal to take away family benefits for a firefighter killed in action is particularly disheartening.

“I’m speaking for my brothers and sisters. I think we’re a class act,” Marsan says.

“We go above and beyond, to provide a service to the town. We do it with a smile. We’ll never not be there for residents. But I think this is an ideological attack on us.”

Marsan notes, “I have a master’s degree. I could be in the private sector. People don’t join the fire service to get rich. We come, we work hard, we sacrifice 30 years of our lives for the municipality.

“We leave with aches and pains. We’re 68% more susceptible to cancer than the general population. All we ask is continued support for our retirement, and the benefits we were promised.”

He knows that “pensions” is a political minefield these days. But, Marsan says, there are a number of misconceptions about firefighters’ benefits. He says that pensions are based on base salary only — not overtime. His members pay 10% of their salaries into the pension fund. Westport’s fund, he says, is “one of the best in the state.”

He continues: “I’m a big boy. I’ve been through a lot worse than this — I’ve been in combat overseas. But this is tough to watch, especially for guys who have been here a lot longer than I have, and will do anything for the town.”

He appreciates the “brand” of Westport, and recites its “jewels”: “incredible beaches, a beautiful library, great arts, a fantastic education system.”

But, he says, “people who buy homes here also know the fire and police services are top-notch.”

Marsan concludes, “This is a living, breathing town. We’re not looking to break the bank. We choose this profession, and we know we’ll spend a lot of time away from our families.

“I don’t live in a vacuum. I understand the town has responsibilities to taxpayers. But we are a human resource. We should be valued.

“We just want to be taken care of. If I die in the line of duty, I want to make sure my wife and kid are taken care of.”

An arbitration decision could be made by mid-May.

Fire Up This Survey

Most of us have never needed the Fire Department to race to our homes or business.

But nearly all of us have had some interaction with Westport firefighters. They help out during medical emergencies, weather emergencies, even routine inspections.

Now the Fire Department wants to know: How are we doing?

fire-departmentThe town’s Strategic Planning Steering Committee has designed a community survey. Just a few minutes long, it will identify current areas of strength, and help plan for the future.

The second part is important. Westport has changed substantially since our fire stations were built.

(Case in point: The “new” firehouse across from 5 Guys replaced a much smaller station on Church Lane. It was repurposed in 1978 as the YMCA fitness center. That building long outlived its usefulness, and is now being incorporated into Bedford Square.)

Our firefighters are no longer volunteers; they’re full professionals. Their vehicles, equipment and methods have all evolved.

The Saugatuck fire station, in its long-time location on Riverside Avenue.

The Saugatuck fire station, in its long-time location on Riverside Avenue.

The size of residential houses — and construction materials used — continues to grow. So do our office buildings.

Also increasing: the number of calls the Fire Department answers on I-95 and the Merritt Parkway.

The survey is part of a broader study. Town officials must answer questions like: Are our fire stations located in the right places? How should we think about new technologies like drones and robotics?

Your input can help. Please click here for the survey. It runs through October 9.

The Vigilant Firehouse on Wilton Road, circa 1977. It now houses the Neat coffeehouse and and wine bar.

The Vigilant Firehouse on Wilton Road, circa 1977. It now houses the Neat coffeehouse and and wine bar.