“You don’t deserve to go without a hydrant in your neighborhood.”
Patrick Cannon, union president of New Haven Firefighters Local 825, says the hydrant across from Roberto Clemente School was hit by a bus in October 2019. It’s been out of service since, and there’s only one mechanic in the fire department that could possibly fix it.
“I don’t think we have somebody – our one mechanic may not be qualified to fix hydrants. I’m not sure,” said union vice president Daniel Del Prete.
There are 2,600 fire hydrants in the city and 125 are not working. The union leaders say that number is unacceptable, and they are frustrated with a slow hiring process in the that’s left mechanics positions and other roles open.
“We’re not talking weeks folks, we’re talking months that we’ve been strung along and told ‘it’s gonna happen, gonna happen, gonna happen.’ Well, we’re tired of waiting,” Del Prete said.
“They didn’t take care of this hydrant, they haven’t filled our chief’s positions, they haven’t filled our drill master position, they haven’t filled our fire marshal position,” Cannon added.
Those are positions critical to things like firefighter training, and maintenance of the fleet and the hydrants. Fire Chief John Alston says all of those roles are currently filled by people in acting roles. The union contends they need immediate permanent hires.
With only one mechanic, Alston says they have to be strategic about the necessary repairs to hydrants and fire engines. Depending on the need, they may contract out some of the work or have the single mechanic use overtime, which adds to the department’s overbudget expenses.
But there could be help soon. Mayor Justin Elicker says offer letters for mechanics went out this month.
“We’ve put out offer letters to fill these two positions so we’re planning on filling those and fixing these fire hydrants,” Elicker said.
Alston says they’re also close to hiring an operations chief who is responsible for coordinating on-scene responses.
“We’re down to four candidates, all very capable who have gone through the first interview process. They will now go through a second interview process with me,” Alston said.
Assistant Chief Justin McCarthy has helped fill the role that was left open in February after Mark Vendetto retired. It and was in the process of being filled up until the fatal house fire on Valley Street on May 12 that took the life of firefighter Ricardo Torres Jr. and injured Lt. Samod Rankins. Interviews were postponed while the department was involved in the funeral and other events that followed.
The chief says they should have the operations chief position filled by Tuesday’s fire commission meeting. He adds that hiring can be slow at times because of the expense of testing and hiring. The city has $400,000 to use on hundreds of candidates who apply for fire and police department positions.
“Our hiring practice costs about $150,000. The police is about $180,000. The rest of that bucket of money has to be used to test all the other positions in city government,” Alston explained.
So, what happens when crews arrive at a scene and find an old and non-working hydrant? Firefighters have a system that tracks them.
“It will tell you, the hydrant at 123 Main Street is out. But it will also tell you the other hydrants that are 150 and 300 feet away,” Alston said.
He says the 125 hydrants that are out are less than 5% of all the hydrants in the city. He adds that fire trucks carry 500 gallons of water, enough for an average fire. And the city’s three new engines carry 750 gallons.
Long term, the chief says some of the hydrants are 100 years old, and there have been conversations about an overhaul of the entire system across the city.
Right now the union says they’re tired of a patchwork approach to the repairs and the delay in hiring. Del Prete says they feel the city is stringing them along with hiring promises and says the critical roles like a ops chief, drill master, mechanic and fire marshal are in need of a permanent hire.
“We continue to respond to calls we continue to answer them when they come in and we’ll do what we’re trained to do and what we’re hired to do. We just ask the city to do the same.”