Providence fire chief seeks more rescues to meet demand

01:00 AM EDT on Thursday, October 11, 2007

By Gregory Smith

Journal Staff Writer

PROVIDENCE — Fire Chief George S. Farrell is considering putting one or two additional rescue trucks on the road in response to public demand. The Fire Department currently has six full-time rescues.

Farrell acknowledged the possibility yesterday and said that if he deploys additional rescues, he intends to transfer personnel from engine and ladder companies to staff those rescues. That would mean fewer personnel riding to fires on other vehicles.

And therein lies a controversy with the International Association of Fire Fighters, Local 799.

The labor union, which represents Providence firefighters and emergency medical technicians, wants more rescue trucks, too. But the union insists that transferring personnel to staff additional rescues would compromise the safety of firefighters and the public and would violate one or more binding agreements between the city and the union. Instead, the union wants the department to hire more people.

If Farrell goes ahead and strips personnel from engine and ladder companies to staff rescues, Local 799 said it will contest the action in court.

Providence relies heavily on other cities and towns to answer its rescue calls when its trucks are unavailable.

“We shouldn’t be relying [on them] so much,” Farrell said. People who need emergency help must wait longer if a rescue is being dispatched from out of town, he said. “We have to do a better job. …”

While the fire chief said his primary responsibility is to provide service, he acknowledged that transferring personnel from other apparatus to rescue duty could save some money.

The department currently operates Rescue 6 entirely by paying overtime to the personnel assigned to that truck, rather than hiring new personnel. If there are transfers, Farrell could staff Rescue 6 without paying overtime, saving an average of $600,000 a year at a time when the city is struggling to reconcile its expenditures with its income.

The fire chief recently sent Local 799 formal notice that he intends to stop the practice of staffing most of the 23 fire-suppression companies with four firefighters each. Currently, the department has four firefighters on 13 companies and three firefighters on the other 10 companies. A company consists of an engine, a ladder truck or a special-hazards truck.

Farrell said state labor law requires that a municipality give the affected labor union 30 days’ notice if the municipality intends to change a “past practice.” The practice of staffing some companies with four firefighters and some with three, according to Farrell, has existed since 1992 or 1993.

He said yesterday that he has made no decision about what he will do when the 30-day notice period expires Nov. 1 and whether he will deploy more rescues. In the notice letter, he complained that the union has resisted proposals that he has made about the rescue service, that the union has made no counterproposals and that he remains prepared to dicker with the union.

Over the years, the number of fires has declined even as the number of calls for emergency medical services has risen sharply.

The Farrell letter provoked a tart press release from the union yesterday in which the union made three major contentions:

1. That Farrell has not provided an analytical rationale for using personnel transfers to operate more rescues.

2. That Farrell would be flouting a 1997 independent study of the department that says it is preferable to attack emergencies with four-member crews rather than three-member crews.

3. That Farrell is contradicting himself because the chief used to advocate four-member crews. In 2001, Farrell went to California, according to the union, and helped to persuade the National Fire Protection Association that the association should adopt a national standard calling for four on-duty personnel to man each piece of fire apparatus. Farrell himself was president of Local 799 at the time.

In addition, the union yesterday demanded that the fire chief or Mayor David N. Cicilline make public an unannounced and never-released follow-up study of the department commissioned in 2005.

Farrell said the union, in its press release, misrepresented the standard adopted by the National Fire Protection Association. The standard, he insisted, does not refer to the number of personnel to be assigned to each piece of apparatus.

When a piece of equipment rolls from the large majority of the fire departments in Rhode Island, he pointed out, there are only three-member crews aboard. If the union’s interpretation of the standard is correct, then most fire responses in Rhode Island do not comply, he argued.

Farrell said the standard refers to a certain number of personnel being on the scene of a fire within a certain period of time and that a certain number of additional personnel be on the scene of a fire within an additional period. Providence complies with that standard and will continue to comply, he said, regardless of what he might do about the rescues.

The press release, from Firefighter 1st class Paul A. Doughty, Local 799 president, taunted Farrell regarding Farrell’s alleged flip-flop on the association standard and the city’s failure to make public the 2005 department study by MMA Consulting Group, of Boston. The study covers staffing as well as other matters, according to Doughty.

“Until now, the chief had given no indication that his prior well-reasoned, passionate support for [the standard] had wavered,” Doughty declared. “What has changed, Chief Farrell? What are the statistical and other evidentiary bases upon which you have built your latest argument? Why won’t you join with us to demand release of the 2005 study?”

Farrell pooh-poohed the press release as “union rhetoric” and commented that it is difficult for people to accept change or even proposed change.

Asked if he knows what Farrell will do, Doughty replied, “I think he’s going to see which way the political winds are blowing.” If there is no serious adverse reaction from the City Council or the public regarding the transfers, Farrell will order the transfers and add a seventh or even an eighth rescue, Doughty predicted.

There is enough work to justify eight rescues, Doughty added.

Separately, Local 799 sent a letter to Cicilline dated yesterday requesting disclosure of the 2005 study and invoking the Access to Public Records Act as grounds for the disclosure.