BEACON FALLS – When voters go to the polls March 1, they’ll have one less item to consider. Thanks to a grant from the Assistance to Firefighter Grants (AFG), Beacon Falls residents won’t have to vote on whether to bond breathing apparatus and personal protective equipment.
The Beacon Hose Co No. 1 received $168,716 to purchase much-needed equipment.
The grant will replace 21-year-old air packs and outfits that are falling apart.
Firefighting equipment is expensive, according to Jeremy Rodorigo, public information officer. It costs about $4,000 to outfit a new firefighter, he said. The new gear will have tracking devices, so if a firefighter is trapped during an operation, others will be notified and come to his or her rescue.
In the past, equipment wasn’t as expensive and the town could pay for it through a revenue sharing program. But, now they have to buy almost everything over $50,000 on lease.
The fire company is required to replace air packs at least every 12 years, according to National Fire Protection Association standards.
“A small town like ours can’t afford it,” said Fire Chief Michael Pratt.
Beacon Falls is lucky since they have a mostly volunteer force, Pratt said. At other fire departments, most of their budget goes toward paying personnel, he said.
Congress created the AFG program as part of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in response to the terrorist attacks on 9/11.
After 9/11, congress saw fire departments as not only a local resource, but as first responders for national emergencies, according to Sen. Joe Lieberman.
When rescue workers in New York City put out a call for supplies, the Beacon Falls company responded by soliciting area businesses, including Peter Paul, Home Depot, and Walmart.
They brought the supplies up to Ground Zero the next day and handed them out to workers.
“We literally went out and handed these things and they were like gold,” said Captain Dave Rybinski.
Lieberman said he visited the site a few days later, on Sept. 14.
“The really inspiring thing was, by that time, how much assistance had come in,” Lieberman said.
He said he saw local fire departments as part of a larger national effort, which is why he fought to create the grants.
“To me, this is money well spent,” Lieberman said.
On Feb. 9, Lieberman visited the hose company to get a first hand look at how the grant money was used.
“You’ve got a lot to be proud of,” Lieberman told the Beacon Hose Company.
Since the federal government began funding the grants in 2003, Beacon Falls applied for grants all seven years and received grants four times.
“Beacon Falls has been a big benefactor of the AFG program,” said Rybinski, who wrote for the grants.
Lieberman congratulated the company for securing the competitive grant. There are always a lot more applicants than money available, he said.
As chair of the Homeland Security Committee, Lieberman said he is trying to get a five-year reauthorization of the grant program.
Rybinski said everyone in the Connecticut delegation in Congress has been very supportive of the program, writing letters of endorsement to support Beacon Fall’s applications and setting up meetings to help write the grants.
The grant applications have to explain how the money will be used not only to help the individual fire department, but the area as a whole. They are reviewed by other fire departments.
“It’s your peers that are looking at your request,” Rybinski said.
Previous grant money paid for cold and swift water rescue equipment, which firefighters have already used several times during the Duck Day race on the Naugatuck River. The fire company also bought boats that can skid across the ice to rescue people who have fallen through thin ice.
“We’ve used it a number of times already,” Rodorigo said.
No other area fire department has water rescue equipment and training, making it a specialty for Beacon Falls. If someone is in trouble up the river in Naugatuck, the Beacon Falls Hose Company can respond. On the other hand, Naugatuck has a confined space rescue team, so Beacon Falls can pull on their resources when needed.
“We definitely try to reduce these redundancies,” Rodorigo said.
With the first grant, the fire company paid for forest gear to rescue hikers, and hi-band communication radios to talk to other area first responders. They bought an all-terrain vehicle, which they’ve used to rescue a hiker who fell off a cliff.
“This is like a golf cart on steroids,” Rodorigo said.
A second grant replaced an old fire truck from the 1950s with a new engine with a compressed air foam system, Rodorigo said.
“It’s such a comfort to know whenever that call goes in someone will respond,” said Selectman Dominic Sorrentino.
Even with the grant, the town will have to kick in some money for the new equipment. The original bond package asked for $230,000 for air breathing apparatus, leaving about $60,000 to cover after the grant. The AFG will pay for basic equipment, but upgrades will cost more, according to Rybinski. The fire company hopes to include a buddy breather system, which allows firefighters to share air if one runs out and a pass device, which sends out a warning if the wearer isn’t moving.
The fire company still needs a new ambulance, pumper truck, and fire truck, items they had hoped to include in the bond package, but were nixed.
Sorrentino asked Lieberman to stop by the FEMA office and drop some hints.
The company also hopes to hire a second day time employee because it’s hard to get volunteers during the day, when most people are working.
The bond referendum will still include $5,115,000 for road and sanitary sewer main improvements, $125,000 for fuel and heating oil storage facility improvements, and $1 million for wastewater treatment plant improvements.
The Board of Selectmen set a public hearing date for Feb. 28 to discuss the bond package, with a full-day referendum to follow March 1.