Southbury Training School-Fire department costs criticized at institution for developmentally disabled
The number of institutional fire departments has dwindled to a relative handful as facilities have closed across the country, but the campus emergency unit at the Southbury Training School continues on, unchanged over the decades as the resident population shrinks and buildings are mothballed.
The state last year spent just under $1.9 million to run the campus fire and ambulance department, which serves the 305 remaining residents and the state workforce at Southbury. The cost is akin to a small municipal department serving thousands of people. The chief, assistant chief and 12 firefighters shared $588,000 in overtime. More than half of the unit's ambulance calls were either off campus, to assist neighboring towns for free, or were non-emergency transports of Southbury Training School residents to scheduled medical appointments, a Courant review has found.
Amid deep cuts to programs across the state, withering criticism from parents over the way the state deploys its $1 billion developmental-services budget, and a growing list of more than 2,000 families waiting for residential services, state officials have steadfastly defended the campus fire department while declining to discuss operating costs.
"Southbury Training School is an alternative universe," said Shannon Jacovino of The ARC Connecticut, a coalition of private providers, advocates, and parents."Like the cost of the fire department, real-world principles don't apply."
The overtime total surprised each of the four fire experts interviewed by the Courant about the campus fire and emergency-medical operation. Seven of the 12 firefighters earned over $100,000 last year on base salaries ranging from $63,000 to $75,000. An eighth department member earned $97,516, a ninth earned $91,337. The chief and assistant chief earned $108,000 in overtime between them last year. The state says there are now four fewer fire department members; three firefighters have retired and one has been transferred to another job.
Glenn Terlecki, president of the Connecticut Police and Fire Union, said firefighters at Southbury Training School "have been operating at or near minimum staffing for a number of years due to state budget cuts and downsizing. Overtime expenses could have been reduced by hiring more firefighters; the state has chosen otherwise."
The state Department of Developmental Services denied a request by The Courant to spend time with Chief Timothy Baldwin, see the fire and ambulance operation up close, and hear and explanation of the overtime costs.
The unit's call statistics, obtained through a Freedom of Information request, show:
•Of the 944 emergency ambulance calls handled by the training school's fire unit last year, 249 of those runs, or 26 percent, were off campus, to back up the volunteer crews in the town of Southbury who were on other calls. The town does not pay for these responses.
•Another 339 ambulance calls last year, or 26 percent of the total, were non-emergency transports of Southbury Training School residents to doctors appointments, scheduled diagnostic tests and one-day surgeries. In 2008 and 2009, these non-emergency transports accounted for as much as 50 percent of the department's medical runs. The experts interviewed by The Courant suggested that the state could sign a contract with a commercial ambulance service to handle these transports, reducing overtime costs for the state crews and allowing them to devote more time during the regular work week to fire inspections, prevention, education, drills, and alarm-system upkeep, which are all part of their duties.
espite media attention and concerns by advocates, the fire department's trends are continuing. Of the 381 ambulance runs between Jan.1 and April 1 of this year, 207, or 54 percent, were either off-campus calls, or non-emergency ambulance transports. Advocates and parents said they see the off-campus responses as way for the training-school fire department to help justify its existence. "You would want to know why there is such an imbalance in mutual aid," said Ken Willette of the National Fire Protection Association, "It's a legitimate question."
•When discussing the fire and ambulance services at Southbury, DDS officials point out that the state bills the patients' insurance companies for emergency transports. Between 2008 and 2014, the state collected more than $2.5 million in billing receipts. But the money disappeared into the general fund and was not retained by DDS to serve people with intellectual disabilities. The $2.5 million, for example, could have served several dozen families on the waiting list for residential services. In many cases, aging parents of adult children with intellectual disabilities have waited for years to move up on the waiting list, and fear they will die before knowing the fate of their sons or daughters.
•The Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services in 2011 disbanded the three-person fire unit at Connecticut Valley Hospital in Middletown and transferred those duties to the South Fire District in Middletown. The three employees remain at CVH as fire inspectors and the state agency has saved several hundred thousand dollars in overtime costs over the last three years. In 2010 and 2011, salaries for the three individuals had totaled $346,000, and $339,000, respectively.
Southbury First Selectman Ed Edelson said the responsibility for fire and emergency-medical responses at the training school eventually will transfer to the town. He said the community has begun to plan for that day.
"It's going to happen at some point, and we recognize that [operating costs for the training-school department] are going to become more of an issue as the population of the campus continues to go down," Edelson said.
The DDS is gradually closing its Southbury campus, where admissions have been frozen since 1986. The department says 40 residents have been moved to community settings since 2010 and another 40 are planning to move over the next two years. When two more residential buildings close this spring, 21 cottages will remain in use, down from 56 in the late 1990s.
Yet the DDS, in a recent response to a report by parents identifying excessive overtime costs throughout the employee ranks at Southbury, touted the fire department's expanding role on campus.
"There was a 32 percent increase in the need for ambulance transportation from 2013 to 2014 … and given the aging population at [the training school], it is anticipated that the need for emergency service will continue to increase," the DDS said in its response to the parents' report.
A check of the records shows that off-campus emergency runs and non-emergency ambulance transports accounted for 55 percent of the increase from 2013 to 2014.
In response to queries from The Courant about the cost and operation of the campus fire department, DDS Commissioner Morna Murray issued this written statement:
The agency "takes its responsibility very seriously to protect the health and safety of the residents of Southbury Training School, which includes providing fire protection and emergency response. Currently, 305 residents must depend upon the quick response of the STS Fire Department and Emergency Medical Services. Both are located on the STS campus for any emergency services the residents may need."
Allan Bergman, a Chicago-based expert in the disabilities field, said Connecticut is moving people out of institutions at a "pathetic" pace, compared with national trends. As long as people remain at large residential centers, the state can rationalize the high cost of support services such as the fire department. Twenty-five states have fewer than 150 people with intellectual disabilities living in institutions; Connecticut has a total of about 490 living at Southbury and in three regional centers.
Glenn Corbett, a code-compliance expert who teaches fire engineering at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said fire and EMS units operating under tight budget restrictions "need to focus on responding to true emergencies." He said that non-emergency ambulance rides can be provided by a contractor.
Willette, manager of the NFPA's public fire-protection division, said as institutional fire brigades and departments disbanded across the country, states reached agreements with local communities to provide, or assist with, fire protection on the state campuses. He said in many cases, states donated fire trucks and other equipment to the communities that were taking on the added responsibilities.