OP-ED | Savings Over Safety Just Won’t Work
Since 1971 the UConn Health Fire Department has been the premier fire department in the Farmington Valley. The Department responds to over 2,000 emergency calls annually and was the first fire department in the State to have a paramedic response service, but now, they are scheduled for closure. The decision to shut down the fire department comes at a time when the State of Connecticut struggles to rein in a $1.7 billion budget gap. While State lawmakers argue over partisan politics and who’s to blame for the state’s fiscal deficit, UConn Health officials have apparently figured out who’s at fault for their own budget woes; 16 career firefighters.
Who else could they possibly blame? The total wages for 6,026 UCH employees during FY16 was $449,768,702.32. I suppose no blame could possibly fall on the 273 mostly non-unionized employees who earned more than $200,000 last fiscal year, or 37 highest paid administrators who earned more than $400,000, either. I’m not minimizing the important work many of these medical professionals and administrators do. I’m just saying, stop picking on the little guy.
The fire department itself has been the proverbial red-headed stepchild for decades. Although it’s viewed as an invaluable asset by most rank-and-file workers, it’s seen as a budget killing boondoggle by the UCH administration. Over the last 5 years, while the fire department staffing levels remained unchanged, the campus size has nearly doubled. The addition of Jackson Laboratory and Bioscience Connecticut added 189,000-square-feet for genomic medicine. Along with this came 21 new biotech startup companies with 32 laboratories and 40 offices, a 300,000-square-foot new outpatient pavilion, a new patient tower in John Dempsey Hospital with a new emergency department, 169 private patient rooms and 10 operating rooms — not to mention two new massive parking garages. Bioscience Connecticut has transformed and modernized the UCH campus into a biotech juggernaut.
As the vision of the biotech giant continues to grow, the likelihood of an adequate emergency response to campus is dwindling. If Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s proposed budget goes through, the Town of Farmington stands to lose $4.2 million in State funding from FY17 to FY18. In a January 4, 2017 letter addressed to Farmington state legislators, Farmington Town Manager Kathleen Eagen writes, “Farmington has already passed its budget. Mid-year cuts in state aid could mean further cuts in necessary local services, higher property taxes and/or more employee layoffs.” The statement by Eagen sharply contrasts her statement given in a press release following the UCH Fire Department closure announcement where she stated, “The town of Farmington understands the fiscal challenges facing UConn Health and the State of Connecticut. The town of Farmington fire department is committed to providing the same high level of service to UConn Health that it does throughout the rest of the town.”
What makes this decision even more mindboggling are the results found in a 2013 independent study of the UCH Fire Department conducted by FireScope Mid-America. The study was paid for by UCH in effort to examine the current functions of the Fire Department and to evaluate potential alternate operational approaches to fire and emergency medical services on campus. The study, which included interviews with both Ms. Eagan and Farmington Director of Fire Services Mary-Ellen Harper, concluded that, “The Fire Companies that service the Town of Farmington, and thus the UCHC complex within their defined service areas, are ill prepared to provide primary fire services to the campus. Because they are primarily volunteer fire companies, there is simply not the time and resources available to be intimately familiar with the layout, processes, hazards, systems and dynamics of the Health Center complex.”
This is one of those things that make you go hmmmm? It is now clear as mud how UCH plans to adequately protect its billion dollar investments. This looks like just another pennywise and pound foolish decision by the State of Connecticut.
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