Mendon, Massachuesetts Firefighter Unions Challenge Chief

MENDON, MA -- Breaking their silence, Mendon's full-time and call firefighter unions spoke out against their new chief this week, with one group filing unfair labor practice charges with the state against the chief and selectmen.

"We have a legitimate public safety concern with the way the Fire Department is being run underneath the management structure that the selectmen put in place," said Robert Caron, president of the Mendon Permanent Firefighters Association.

Police Chief Ernest Horn was appointed by selectmen last month to oversee the Fire Department until Fire Chief Charlie Johnson resigns or retires.

Currently, Johnson is on paid leave from the town due to a work-related medical condition and is not expected to return to work. Once Johnson resigns or retires, Horn will officially be made fire chief, selectmen said, earning him a $20,000 annual raise.

The charges, filed by the Mendon Permanent Firefighters Association with the Massachusetts Labor Relations Board, allege the town has failed to bargain in good faith, unilaterally heaping additional rules and responsibilities on the full-time firefighters without negotiation.

Lacking any fire training and hired largely on his administrative strength, Horn since taking over has updated the Fire Department's policies and procedures, in the form of an 87-page manual, and has arranged for Hopedale's ladder truck to respond first to Mendon fires, in place of Milford.

Horn, who could not be reached for comment yesterday, has previously described the policy changes, saying in a Jan. 11 report to selectmen that the town's firefighters were unfamiliar or not following existing operating procedures.

"That's very telling to me," Horn said at the meeting. "It was my opinion that they were at best haphazard and obviously that's not what we're looking for."

Horn also recently said he took the Milford ladder off his first-response run card because a Hopedale ladder truck can get to town faster.

"Time is of the essence," Horn said last week. "It's really a public safety issue."

But while the unions representing the professional and volunteer firefighters agree Hopedale is geographically closer to Mendon, they say the arrangement undermines carefully thought out procedures designed by Johnson, a professionally trained firefighter.

According to Caron, the Hopedale ladder truck was removed from Mendon's run card this fall because the Hopedale ladder only seats two, requiring at least two other firefighters to follow in an engine. Without a ladder or an engine in town, Caron said the arrangement puts Hopedale at an unnecessary risk.

Additionally, it takes time for the Hopedale Fire Department to gather its volunteers to staff its ladder truck, Caron said, eliminating any possible time savings.

Milford, meanwhile, has a four-man full-time crew, who operate a more modern ladder truck capable of more advanced fire fighting and are available to Mendon around the clock, Caron said.

"It's a little bit farther distance but they're already there. There's no driving time to the truck," Caron said. "Chief (Johnson) and the lieutenants put in a lot of work to develop these cards."

Now since Horn reinstated Hopedale to the run card, the Mendon Call Firefighters Association is questioning Horn's role and his qualifications.

"(His role) was supposed to be administrative, but now it's turning into operational," said Eric Peterson, vice president of the Mendon Call Firefighters Association. "This isn't about him personally. We just feel a fire chief needs to be a professional firefighter, not just someone who was appointed."

The unions also believe Horn is spreading himself too thin by taking on arguably the two most important jobs in town.

"I don't care who you are, that would be hard on anybody," Caron said. "I'm concerned with the way things will turn out in the future, following this path."

According to Mendon Call Firefighters Association President Bill Krauss, Horn has not attended a biweekly call firefighters' meeting since Jan. 6, to keep them updated on training and departmental changes.

"It's not fair to the town and it's not fair to us," Krauss said.

Krauss, Peterson and Caron said their unions considered mass resignations following Horn's appointment, but have since opted against it, not wanting to jeopardize public safety and trust.

But the full-time firefighters union, protesting administrative changes Horn has made since taking over the department, has hired an attorney and filed unfair labor practice charges against selectmen and Horn with the state Labor Relations Commission.

The full-time firefighters charge that the town has refused to bargain in good faith with their union, has changed the department's rules and regulations -- in the form of the 87-page manual -- without providing an opportunity to bargain over the changes, and has increased the responsibilities and workload of the department's two lieutenants without allowing them a chance to bargain over the changes.

"They're changing our working conditions, which basically, they can't do," Caron said.

Caron also alleges the selectmen, in a Feb. 5, 2003, letter signed by selectmen Chairman Dennis Shaheen, and then-Selectmen Peter Confrey and Dale Pleau, unlawfully attempted to coerce the full-time firefighters from forming a union. In the letter, a copy of which was shown to the Daily News yesterday, selectmen wrote, "We urge you not to join a union."

Shaheen could not be reached for comment yesterday.

But while Caron would like to see these grievances resolved, the top priority of his union and of the call firefighters union is to get a professional firefighter atop the department.

"No disrespect to Ernie (Horn) but as the president of the Permanent Firefighters Association, I want a professional fire chief," Caron said.

By hiring a police officer to run the Fire Department, Peterson said the selectmen have put the public's safety at risk.

"I feel (the selectmen) did a great disservice and as a call firefighter, I feel this was a slap in the face," Peterson said.