Fire department in a time of change

NAUGATUCK — The Naugatuck Fire Department is bracing for unprecedented change over the next couple of months.

There will be a search for a new fire chief, new leadership on the fire commission and a rush to replace a quarter of the department’s line firefighters.

“It’s pretty busy with all of those things,” Interim Fire Chief Ellen Murray said.

Murray is in charge, at least for now, of overseeing a department where members say high turnover and constant change is causing a drop in morale. She is adamant that she is working to boost spirits, though she would not discuss her specific plans because she said some of them are part of ongoing negotiations with borough leaders.

Meanwhile, it appears elected officials are trying to work with her. The Board of Mayor and Burgesses voted 8-1 Tuesday to approve new contract terms with Murray that will pay her at the same rate as a full-time chief. The addendum to her contact is retroactive to Aug. 29 and will run through June 30 or until a new fire chief is named. The agreement pays her a base salary of $88,320 for as long as she is chief, and she will be given a $5,000 stipend to serve as training officer.

Murray said she plans to apply for the chief’s position. It is unclear at this point whether anyone else within the department plans to apply, said John Ford, who was appointed fire commission chairman last week.

He said the commission plans to look at both internal and external candidates.

“We want to have a comparison to what is out there,” he said.

Currently, the most pressing concern, he said, is replacing eight line officers; the department has four shifts of eight firefighters apiece, or 32 total line firefighters.

The department has been authorized to hire up to six people thus far, and it has made conditional offers to three.

The high turnover has been blamed on firefighters going to other towns that still offer pensions.

Naugatuck’s new public employees no longer receive traditional pension plans; instead they are enrolled in defined contribution plans, similar to 401(k) plans in the private sector. Additionally, firefighters cannot pay into Social Security.

Naugatuck also has to replace several firefighters who retired early as part of a new contract plan in which the union waived traditional pensions in exchange for early retirement incentive plans and other perks.

Because of the high turnover, the firefighting positions are being filled on overtime, which is taxing not only financially but also on the firefighters, Ford said. The positions must be filled due to minimum manpower clauses in the union contract.

Ford acknowledges this is a tough stretch for the department, but he said he believes in Murray’s leadership ability.

“We have complete confidence in her, and if we didn’t, we would have looked around to bring in another interim chief,” he said.

Fire union President Tommy Moore could not be reached for comment.