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Judge rules with city on ladder truck

April 14, 2011

PROVIDENCE — Union firefighters from Woonsocket yesterday lost their bid in Superior Court to block Mayor Leo T. Fontaine from sidelining one of the city's two ladder trucks in a belt-tightening move.
Judge Bennett Gallo said Local 732 of the International Association of Fire Fighters had failed to prove that the reduction in apparatus put firefighters or the general public at an increased risk of danger, as the union had argued.
“In the final analysis, I'm unable to discern any measurable decrease in the firefighting capacities of the city or, for that matter, any increased risk to the firefighters or the public,” the judge said.
Among the arguments that were most central to firefighters' case was that it would take longer to respond to emergencies because the Woonsocket Fire Department would be forced to rely more on mutual aid from its suburban neighbors. But Gallo said he found those concerns to be “either without basis or overstated.”
Citing the testimony in the case, Gallo said the second truck is in use just five percent of the time, and when it's deployed the aerial itself is used even less often. Most of the time, he said, the truck is used to deliver a “rapid intervention team” of firefighters to emergencies, but the department already has a backup plan to use a standard engine for that.
See RULING, Page A-2
In terms of overall capacity to deal with emergencies, Gallo said Woonsocket appears to have one of the strongest fire departments in the state.
Fontaine implemented the order on Jan. 30 to cut back on firefighter overtime, currently running about $1.2 million a year for the 124-member department. Fontaine said he couldn't balance this year's budget wthout some concessions on wages and benefits from firefighters, but the union had rebuffed his entreaties to negotiate, leaving him no other choice.
The apparatus rollback reduces overtime because the order requires the truck to be sidelined only when it's necessary to resort to “callback” manpower to staff it. That condition exists only when fewer than 26 firefighters are available for regular time, a figure which both the city and the union currently recognize as the mandatory minimum shift complement under their collective bargaining agreement.
The union sued the city after the order took effect, initially arguing that it was a violation of the pact, later amending the complaint to highlight the issue of safety. The judge heard four days' worth of testimony from several witnesses in recent weeks. Fire Chief Gary Lataille was the city's only witness, while the union called at least two experts on firefighter safety.
A handful of Woonsocket firefighters, dressed in suits and ties, were present for Gallo's ruling from the bench, which came immediately after closing arguments from lawyers in the case. The city was represented by Daniel Kinder and Joseph Larisa, the union by Mark Gursky. Neither Gursky nor Lt. Chris Oakland, president of the IAFF, would comment after the ruling.
“This is not about safety at all,” Kinder had told the judge in his final arguments. “It's about money.”
Kinder said the union had failed to prove that eliminating the ladder would result in “imminent, irreparable harm” to either firefighters or property owners – the legal standard required for the judge to intercede in the city's affairs.
But Gursky said it was “bizarre” to apply the standard in a case focusing on firefighting safety, because firefighting is an inherently unsafe line or work.
“We shouldn't be required to show all of a sudden it's unsafe. It is unsafe,” he said. “Safety in firefighting is a matter of making things less unsafe.”
Gallo disagreed, saying Gursky's yardstick allows for no reduction in manpower or equipment, no matter how incremental.
“Naturally,” Gallo said, “any reduction from what currently exists in terms of equipment and manpower is going to be, by your definition or irreparable harm – irreparable harm. If we had an engine and a ladder on every street corner in Woonsocket, it would be great. I'm sure it would lessen the risk to everyone.”
But if the engine and ladder were on every other street corner, would the risk be appreciably greater? “I don't think so,” Gallo said.
Though the union declined comment, Local 732 continues to fight the rollback through the city's internal personnel grievance system, which could result in binding arbitration order later this year. But at this point it's impossible to tell who will prevail in that forum.
Fontaine, meanwhile, hailed the judge's ruling as a big victory for the city and its taxpayers.
“Obviously I'm happy the judge ruled in our favor,” the mayor said. “This is an important part of us trying to maintain the fiscal integrity of our budget going forward.”
Fontaine said he hoped the ruling would give the union some incentive to return to the bargaining table to hammer out a contract that includes some meaningful concessions. They're needed, he said, to balance the budget not just for this year, but also the next.
“I think we'd all be better off if we spent more time sitting around the bargaining table than around a courtroom,” Fontaine said.

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