NEW HAVEN, Conn. (WTNH) — Right now, are conditions unsafe for firefighters at one of the biggest fire departments in the state? That’s the allegation from the New Haven Fighters Union to city leadership.
The union is blasting Mayor Justin Elicker and city alders over broken fire hydrants, fire engines that need repair, and understaffing. But the mayor and fire chief say those issues are being addressed and the city is safe.
“We know the risks that we take when we take this job,” said New Haven Firefighters Union President Patrick Cannon. “We all signed up for this job knowing those risks. We didn’t know they weren’t going to give us proper tools to do the job, [or] fill the proper positions to oversee the job that we have to get done.”
Standing on the corner of Columbus and Howard Thursday morning, firefighters union leadership sounded the alarm—frustrated, they say, after more than a year of asking for hydrants to be fixed, for engine trucks to be maintained, and for mechanic and department leadership positions to be filled. Instead of new hires, Cannon says city alders cut four new positions the union hoped to add.
“This is negligent. Fill our positions. Provide us what we need to protect the citizens,” said Cannon.
News 8 asked the mayor to respond.
“The fire department has had the least cuts of any department in the city,” said Mayor Justin Elicker. “There is no gap in safety.”
“There is not one person in the city of New Haven that takes the safety of the citizens and the firefighters more seriously than I do,” Fire Chief John Alston said. “I stay up at night. There’s a radio in every room in my house. I listen all the time. When I think there are some serious issues, we address those serious issues.”
Cannon says 126 fire hydrants in the city are broken. He says the union had been pressing the city to repair them, including ones in underserved communities and even across the street from a school, since before the pandemic.
“They have put our lives, your lives, and your children’s lives at stake. We will not standby anymore for this,” said Cannon.
The mayor and fire chief say they are in the final stages of hiring new mechanics to fix the hydrants, along with a permanent drill master to train recruits and a new chief of operations.
The mayor says there are backup systems in place for fire hydrants that are out of service, which he says represents only a small percentage of hydrants. Elicker says he stands behind his fire chief.
“There has been no risk to residents of safety,” said Elicker.
With a department still reeling from the devastating loss of hero firefighter Ricardo Torres—and the injuries sustained by Lt. Samod Rankins as they tried to save trapped residents at a home on Valley Street last month—the public battle touching on a still raw open wound.
Union President Cannon says they’ll wait for the federal investigation into the Valley Street fire to play out. But when pressed on whether the situation may have had a different outcome had there been a chief of operations—a commanding officer who would normally have responded to the scene—Cannon answered:
“We were warned to not go there. I’m going there. Yes.”
Chief Alston fired back at a separate press briefing: “The answer is an emphatic no. No. The science and the timeline is there.”