NAUGATUCK — Naugatuck firefighters say they work hard to build and maintain close working relationships with their brethren because their lives are sometimes literally in each other’s hands.
It is becoming increasingly harder, they say, to forge close bonds because of a current trend of high turnover at the Naugatuck Fire Department. Firefighters are leaving at an alarming rate shortly after being hired to obtain better retirement packages in other career departments.
“It’s very discouraging; we’ve lost some really good people who have been here between two months and two years,” said newly appointed interim Fire Chief Ellen Murray, who has been the deputy chief since 2011. “It’s hard to get a relationship going with a new firefighter. Everything is based upon working together as a team because you are basically putting your life in someone else’s hands, and next week, you can have someone else in that position.”
The department, which usually operates with 41 members, will be down eight firefighters — the amount on duty during a shift — by next month. The department has a list of certified firefighters from which to choose replacements and will do so. However, Murray said she will have to ask borough officials for additional money to buy turnout gear and premedical exams.
She expected some turnover, as did other local officials, when the borough and the union representing firefighters agreed to a contract three years ago that waived traditional pension plans and moved new hires to defined contribution retirement plans, similar to a 401(K) in the private sector, in which the employee and the employer contribute to the employee’s retirement. Many other communities with career fire departments in Connecticut and around the country still offer traditional defined benefit pension plans.
New hires here also cannot pay into Social Security.
Former Fire Chief Ken Hanks, who retired two weeks ago, said firefighters who have an outside job with earnings through Social Security lose 60 percent of that through federal law, so he said there is no retirement benefit guaranteed for firefighters.
He told officials he expects the high turnover, and Murray said it will take some time for other municipalities to stop offering pensions to new hires.
Members of the Naugatuck Fire Fighters Union Local 1219 union say they are discouraged.
Tom Moore, the union president, said morale is low within the department because of the high turnover.
He pointed to a study the union had drafted by the International Association of Fire Fighters that states based upon the union’s current contract with the borough, its members would likely be income eligible for many government assistance programs when they retire.
Three years ago, before Moore was president, the union waived the pensions in exchange for perks in the current contract, including early retirement incentive packages and language revolving around overtime. Some believed the borough gave away too much to get rid of pensions, but local officials said it was necessary to switch retirement plans for all government employees because taxpayers cannot sustain pensions for long. For example, some police officers and firefighters have retired in recent years at pensions between $70,000 to $100,000 a year.
The fire union is currently in the midst of negotiating a new contract with the borough. Moore said he would not discuss the contract negotiations.
Mayor Robert Mezzo said he also would not discuss contract negotiations because it would violate contract ground rules and state labor laws. He said the union should not be discussing its hiring situation publicly for that very reason.