Show of support for fire school

Firefighters, officials call for state to release funds

Valley Fire Chiefs Regional Fire School President Ken Mitchell Jr., center, advocates for the release of state funds to build a new Valley fire school as Vaughan Dumas, vice president of the fire school, left, and Chuck Stankye, a member of the school’s board of directors, right, listen during a news conference Oct. 10 in Beacon Falls. -ELIO GUGLIOTTI

BEACON FALLS — In a strong show of support, firefighters and officials from the Naugatuck Valley and beyond came together Thursday afternoon to send a clear message to Gov. Ned Lamont — building the new Valley Fire Chiefs Regional Fire School is long overdue.

“We’re not here for a political tug of war; that’s not us,” said Ken Mitchell Jr., president of the Valley Fire Chiefs Regional Fire School. “We’re here for safety, life safety. Our mission is to provide the best training possible for firefighters.”

Mitchell addressed a crowd of more than 100 people at the site for the new Valley fire school on Lancaster Drive in the Pinesbridge Commerce Park. A sign to his right proclaimed the nearly 11 acres behind him as the new home for the school, but instead of a training facility there were only tall weeds.

Firefighters in the Valley have been without their own training school for about 20 years. The former Valley fire school closed in 2000 after the property in Derby was declared a brownfield. In 2010, the state bought the land on Lancaster Drive to build a new training school.

The state has spent close to $2 million on the project already, and all the work needed to start construction is complete. The state went through the bid process again this year after a contract expired several years ago and has another contract in place, which expires next April, officials said.

“This site is shovel-ready,” Mitchell said.

Construction can’t move forward, though, until the State Bond Commission approves $14 million of the $26 million that the legislature has authorized for the training school. Governors set the commission’s agenda, and Lamont has yet to put the money on the agenda.

“We’re seeking the governor to authorize and allocate the bond money to build this project before it has to go out to bid again,” said Vaughan Dumas, vice president of the Valley fire school and fire chief in Orange.

The new Valley fire school is part of a larger project to either build new or update eight training schools throughout the state. The Valley fire school is the next in line, and delaying the project also pushes back work on fire schools in Wolcott and Middlesex, Mitchell said.

Max Reiss, communications director for Lamont, said in September Lamont remains committed to ensuring firefighters receive the training that they need, and that goal will be aligned with the governor’s fiscal approach to reduce the state’s overall borrowing.

This week, Reiss said the governor’s position hasn’t changed.

Locally, firefighters and officials pointed to a promise Lamont made on the campaign trial last November to fund the school.

“Here we are 11 months later and we’re asking the Governor to move forward with his promise,” said James Vincent, who oversees instructional programs at the fire school and is the deputy fire marshal in Orange.

House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, said Lamont made serious comments while campaigning that the Valley has been ignored for far too long and he would fund the fire school if elected. She said officials are waiting for him to fulfill his promise.

The Valley fire training school primarily serves nine Valley towns — Woodbridge, Orange, Bethany, Beacon Falls, Seymour, Oxford, Ansonia, Derby and Shelton. Many of the firefighters that attend the classes are members of volunteer fire departments. Without a physical school in the Valley, instructors lug equipment around and teach classes wherever they can find the space in local firehouses. Firefighters have to schedule live training exercises at other schools throughout the state.

Beacon Hose Co. No. 1 Fire Chief Brian DeGeorge said the lack of a Valley school creates a huge inconvenience for every department. The school should have been done already, he said.

“I wish he (Lamont) was here because he really needed to see this and hear this,” DeGeorge said.

Officials have been upping the pressure on Lamont to release the funds. Several Valley towns have approved resolutions calling for the money to be released, and the project has bipartisan support from a host of state legislators.

Firefighters and officials from municipalities beyond the Valley, including Wolcott, Watertown, Terryville, Cheshire and Middlebury, came out Thursday to show their support.

“This project is shovel ready. So is the Wolcott project. Enough is enough,” Middlebury First Selectman Edward St. John said.