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At a Price: Superfluous Safety?

Can Connecticut afford public safety services in every town and city?

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    At a Price: Superfluous Safety

    Connecticut has 169 towns and cities with 169 ways of delivering police, fire, and ambulance services. We may like the local control we have over them, but can we afford a system that at times delivers inconsistent coverage depending on where you live?

    (Published Tuesday, May 1, 2018)

    Connecticut has 169 towns and cities with 169 ways of delivering police, fire, and ambulance services. We may like the local control we have over them, but can we afford a system that at times delivers inconsistent coverage depending on where you live?

    The state has more ambulance companies than communities. With this many resources, residents expect prompt service in an emergency. But Jane Sullivan of Ledyard says that wasn't the case when she called for help for her legally blind son in 2016.

    “It was a long time,” said Sullivan. “I want to say it was 20 minutes maybe or 25 minutes before the ambulance came.”

    Town dispatch data shows it took a town volunteer ambulance 20 minutes to arrive on scene. While other full-time first responders from the fire department got to the Sullivan house faster, they couldn’t transport her son until the ambulance arrived.

    “It’s something probably that should be looked at in terms of why was the response time so long?” said Sullivan. “Should we look at doing it another way?”

    The most recent state data shows the Ledyard Volunteer Emergency Squad had an average response time of 12 minutes, well above the state average of eight minutes and the national guideline for response time. Now Ledyard is taking bids on a new ambulance provider according to town leaders.

    In other states, like North Carolina, local governments have consolidated or regionalized public safety agencies. They say that often leads to efficiencies and cost savings.

    Hover over the image for more information

    Cabarrus County Fire

    While Connecticut has 170 ambulance providers, North Carolina has 100, and serves triple the number of people. The North Carolina providers also cover 10 times the geography.

    In Cabarrus County, just north of Charlotte, each of its dozen ambulances on the road has a paramedic. That’s not necessarily the case in Connecticut where training varies from town to town and city to city.

    According to Cabarrus EMS Director Jimmy Lentz, response times to emergencies have been consistent for years.

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    Cabarrus County EMS

    “The eight minutes is a national standard and we meet that. Greater than seven, but we stay under eight minutes and we have for 28 years," he said.

    Overall, average ambulance response time in Connecticut is also just below eight minutes. But state data shows great differences from town to town in how quickly an ambulance will get to you. It’s the luck of the draw depending where you live how quickly you’ll get help.

    When it comes to ambulance services, paying more in Connecticut isn’t necessarily getting you more, or in this case, a faster response.

    Property taxes, which cover many municipal functions including ambulance services in Connecticut, are on average double what they are in North Carolina.

    Police, fire, and 911 dispatch serving the 200,000 people throughout Cabarrus County's 365-square mile area are also consolidated, though not to the same level as EMS.

    Hover over the image for more information

    Cabarrus County EMS

    Compare that to Groton, Connecticut. It has three local governments, three police departments, and nine fire districts serving 40,000 people in a 30-square mile area called the Town of Groton. The Town of Groton has two political subdivisions, the City of Groton, and Groton Long Point.

    City of Groton Mayor Keith Hedrick does not want to consolidate with the town, unless it's part of a larger regionalization effort. But he admits the current municipal structure may not be financially sustainable in the long run.

    “It is sustainable for a while,” said Hedrick.

    Former Town of Groton Mayor Bruce Flax says the City of Groton government does not have to go away, but they have to find ways to share resources, save money and become more efficient.

    Flax adds that at some point there won’t be enough funds to support all these operations and people will have no choice but to “flatten out what’s going on in Groton.” He says the issue is so toxic that he has few takers for the “One Groton” bumper stickers he made.

    This is not unique to Groton. Across our state communities have struggled with dwindling state funds and local taxpayers unwilling to shoulder more of a burden, but at the same time they lack the political will to switch to leaner municipal government the way many other states have.

    Jane Sullivan, who lived in a part of the country with county government, says local governments in Connecticut should more closely examine ways to deliver more efficient and less costly services.

    “Consolidating, maybe there’s savings there,” she said. “That’s what we have to look at today, savings, because every town is crying because of taxes.”