June 08--STAMFORD -- The Fire Commission voted this week to hire eight volunteer firefighters after an application process that the city's fire union criticized as markedly different from the vetting its members undergo.
The hires stem from a recent legal settlement between the city and Turn of River volunteer fire department. As part of an agreement to resolve its 2013 lawsuit against the city, Turn of River received unprecedented input on the hiring of the eight city firefighters.
Stamford Professional Fire Fighters Association President Brendan Keatley condemned the hiring process, which was open only to active Stamford volunteer firefighters. Unlike other fire department hires, the volunteer applicants did not have to take a written exam or be physically certified before sitting down for interviews with the Fire Commission.
"The method that the city administration is using to select these new firefighter candidates detours around established civil service rules and requirements, sidestepping the established civil service hiring list, and grants preferential treatment to a select group," Keatley wrote in a June 2 letter to the commission.
Another factor that prompted the unusual hiring process was a $2.9 million grant awarded to the volunteer department. Turn of River applied for and received the funding directly from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, forcing the city to agree to a separate application process for some firefighters hired with the grant money.
Even though the process was different, city officials said the hiring was nonetheless compliant with civil service and federal employment regulations.
"As far as I'm concerned all the civil service rules were followed," Fire Chief Peter Brown said last week. "(The union's) concerns are because it's different and they weren't intimately involved in the whole negotiation for this management agreement with Turn of River. But to move forward, we had to move out of the courthouse."
The all-volunteer and chronically understaffed Turn of River Fire Department applied last year for FEMA's Staffing For Adequate Fire & Emergency Response grant. The $2.9 million award can only be used to hire new firefighters for two years; the money cannot be redirected to offset the salaries of employees already on the department's payroll.
This spring, Turn of River Fire Chief Frank Jacobellis said the grant would allow the department to hire 24 firefighters.
Since the grant was awarded directly to Turn of River, city officials were forced to compromise on how the money would be used or risk losing out completely on the funding. The resulting agreement, which also settled outstanding litigation between the city and Turn of River, allotted eight of the 24 hiring spots directly to volunteer firefighters. The other 16 hires will go through the city's regular hiring process.
The city's Director of Human Resources Clemon Williams said the grant created an "unusual circumstance," but defended the hiring process.
"Do you want the citizens of Stamford to receive the best firefighting services they can?" Williams said last week. "Do you want to do it with the least amount of money possible? In that regard it really helps the city, because we have alternative funding sources. Unfortunately, to get these alternative funding sources there were some strings attached."
Keatley, however, said the city failed to perform due diligence in its eagerness to take advantage of nearly $3 million in federal funds. The eight volunteer firefighters will be permanent city employees -- with associated health and retirements costs -- long after the grant expires, he said.
"The city just sees this federal money and they say, 'Let's grab it,' " Keatley said. "You got this grant and now you're basically usurping existing civil service law and creating a whole new mechanism for hiring people."
Jacobellis, however, said he believes the eight firefighters selected by the Fire Commission were well vetted and are qualified to join the city's Fire Department.