A Killingly-based ambulance responding near Windham Hospital Credit: Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie

Facing declining ranks of volunteer firefighters and emergency medical technicians, Connecticut municipal leaders hope lawmakers will explore strategies for attracting and retaining emergency responders, according to legislative priorities announced Tuesday by the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities.

The call to convene a statewide task force on EMT and firefighter shortages was one of six recommendations made by the municipal lobby group on Tuesday, just one day before the state legislature convenes its 2023 session. 

In a press release, the group said that fire departments in a majority of Connecticut towns are staffed by a dwindling number of volunteers. 

“In recent years, towns have struggled to attract and retain these volunteers to adequately meet the needs of residents,” CCM wrote in a press release. “In addition, local EMS services have been plagued by decreasing emergency medical technicians (EMT’s), which has been exacerbated by – among other things – increasing training requirements.”

The group called on the legislature to convene a panel of local leaders and first responders as well as state public health and emergency services officials to weigh volunteer recruitment strategies like income tax credits and tuition incentives. The group also suggested streamlining certification requirements and offering state-funded support for training.

Addressing shortfalls in Connecticut’s patchwork of emergency response systems has been on the radar of state policymakers since at least last July, when the legislature’s Public Health Committee held an informational hearing on the status of Connecticut’s emergency response coverage. 

The meeting left lawmakers concerned about the sustainability of Connecticut’s medical response providers, particularly in the state’s rural areas which rely more heavily on volunteers. Although the number of qualified emergency responders in Connecticut has grown over the years, many qualified personnel have left active service. Town leaders said the COVID pandemic exacerbated their retention woes.

“Some towns saw a drop of half of their volunteer EMTs during this time, up to a third in some other towns,” Betsy Gara, executive director of the Connecticut Council of Small Towns, said in July. “Understandably, because these people were juggling with a variety of new demands, child care, taking care of elderly parents.”

A separate EMS Working Group has been meeting since September on issues including the medical services workforce. That group was expected to make a report to the General Assembly by this week. Brian O’Connor, director of public policy at CCM, said Tuesday that his organization wanted to ensure that conversation continued during the coming legislative session. 

Meanwhile, towns have also struggled to recruit paraprofessionals to assist teachers in local classrooms, according to legislative priorities outlined Tuesday by the municipal lobby group. The association asked lawmakers to develop and fund a training program to increase the number of qualified paraeducators whose ranks have depleted due to retirements and attrition.

The group also appealed to the legislature to speed up increases in state grants to fund local school districts and boost state reimbursement to towns for tax-exempt properties like hospitals and colleges. 

The conference also asked lawmakers to reconsider a requirement that municipalities pay to publish legal notices for things like town meetings and ordinance changes in local newspapers. Rather towns would prefer to post the notices for free on their town websites. 

The legislature has often considered the proposal in years past. State newspapers, meanwhile, have argued both that town governments shouldn’t be trusted to follow the notice requirements and that most people would miss the notices as they do not visit municipal websites.

Gov. Ned Lamont briefly suspended the notice requirement in order to help local governments conduct business during the COVID pandemic. In CCM’s Tuesday recommendations, the group argued that the legislature should either return to permitting towns to post the notices on municipal websites or allow them to pay for an abridged notice in local papers which would direct readers to a full notice online.