Defiant off-duty firefighters are disobeying Fire Department orders and voluntarily staffing three Boston fire companies that were closed today as part of a new "brown out" policy aimed at reducing overtime spending.
"It's the people's firehouse. We are volunteering to staff these firehouses to make sure the public gets the protection it deserves," said Boston firefighters union President Ed Kelly, who used a department radio this morning to report that "Volunteer Engine 20 is in service."
The Fire Department "browned out" three fire companies this morning: Engine 56 in the Orient Heights section of East Boston, the first Boston engine company to respond to emergencies at Logan Airport after Mass Port's fire units; Engine 20 in the Neponset enclave of Dorchester and Ladder 18 at the D Street Station in South Boston.
The temporary closures of the three companies are part of a new plan taking effect that instructs division commanders to "brown out" up to four companies citywide, per shift, before hiring any firefighters on overtime to cover for jakes who call in sick or miss work.
Fire Commissioner Roderick Fraser said the "brown outs" were triggered by 33 firefighters calling in sick, which he called "excessive" but slightly below the normal 36 who call in sick on a typical day.
"We have a problem of sick-leave abuse in the department," Fraser said. "We will not be bullied by them. Come to work, do your job, and we will not need brown outs."
He added that the department has told the union that Boston firefighters are prohibited from volunteering to perform their jobs, a violation of federal law.
"The chief has ordered them not to get on the apparatus, not to handle the equipment and not to respond," he said.
"They've ordered us not to do it. But our union's members are saying, ??????If someone's house catches on fire, I'm not going to let it burn down,' " said Richard Paris, the union's vice president, noting that some firefighters fear that the department will file charges against them for disobeying the order.
Paris pointed out that East Boston, for example, is served by only one other engine company, which carries water. Beyond that, the next nearest engine company to Engine 56, which is on the outskirts of the city, is located downtown and would have to travel through a tunnel and could take nearly 15 minutes to get to the neighborhood, he said.
"If (the ladder trucks) are without the water, you are endangering the lives of the rescue teams," Paris said.
Union members also picketed outside Engine 20 with protest signs, including one saying, "Mayor Menino is gambling with your lives."
The Menino administration has blasted the union's move as a smokescreen meant shroud the 33 firefighters collecting disability who filed for retirement this week, many in order to beat the repeal of a pension provision allowing them to retire at a higher rate if they had filled in for a higher-paid supervisor.
Kelly noted that of the three browned out fire companies, one is near his Dorchester home and the other is near South Boston City Councilor Michael Flaherty, who is seeking to unseat Menino and who has picked up the union's endorsement.
But Fraser insisted that politics had nothing to do with which companies were targeted for "brown outs" today.
"I did not take part in the decision, neither did the mayor," he said, noting they were made by a deputy chief in the field based on "logical reasons."
Republished with permission of The Boston Herald