WOONSOCKET – Despite the efforts of the firefighters union to block the move in Superior Court, a new effort by Mayor Leo T. Fontaine to rein in overtime at the fire department by scaling back the amount of firefighting apparatus will go into effect as planned tomorrow.
The showdown had been quietly simmering between the administration and Local 732 of the International Association of Fire Fighters all week. It began Monday when Fontaine ordered the Woonsocket Fire Department to remove one of the city's two aerial trucks from service whenever manpower levels fall below 26 firefighters per shift, a figure that would ordinarily trigger call-in firefighters for overtime.
The IAFF challenged the order in Superior Court yesterday, arguing that it violates the minimum manning guarantees of its collective bargaining agreement and puts firefighters and the general public at increased risk of injury and property damage. The union sought a preliminary order blocking Fontaine from following through, but Associate Judge Walter Stone refused to interfere – at least for now.
The judge said he wants to hold a full-blown hearing on the dispute, but none is scheduled. Fontaine's order is now slated to take effect at 8 a.m. tomorrow.
“The news is the mayor is going to violate our contract by reducing our minimum manning,” said Lt. Chris Oakland, president of the IAFF. “It's not only a violation of collective bargaining, but also jeopardizes safety. You can't operate as efficiently or effectively with 23 firefighters as you can with 26.”
The mayor's plan pivots around a staffing concept known as a shift complement – the minimum number of firefighters that must be on duty before the department is required to call in supplemental help on overtime. The current minimum is 26, but the department often fails to meet the standard because of vacations, illnesses, injuries or other reasons.
Instead of calling in help for overtime whenever staffing dips below 26, Fontaine wants to sideline one of the department's two ladder trucks. By contract, the fire department must dedicate three firefighters per aerial, but those workers would be freed up to work at regular time under Fontaine's order.
Fontaine recognizes that the contract prohibits the city from unilaterally reducing the shift complement to 23 workers – which is precisely what the union contends he is about to do. But he says the City Charter gives him “management rights” to determine how much firefighting apparatus should be in service at any given time, just as he has the authority to decide whether his secretary's office needs a new desk or an air conditioner.
Fontaine said he issued the order only after repeated attempts to negotiate contractual concessions with the IAFF to help close a looming budget deficit failed. Fontaine said the IAFF is the only city employees union so far that hasn't provided concessions he sought to help close a $2.5 million budget gap before the end of the fiscal year.
“We're in the middle of a financial crisis and we have made no secret our of attempts to reach financial concessions and the need to take action in the absence of that,” the mayor said. “We went to extraordinary lengths to give the firefighters options that would create long-term structural savings that the city needs to rebuild its financial health.”
Fontaine estimates that sidelining an aerial under the conditions he's outlined will save $250,000 in overtime by June 30 – less than 25 percent of the savings he says he really needs from the fire department.
As for the public safety arguments the union raises, Fontaine says the need for two ladders in service at all times has been wildly exaggerated. In 2009, the last year for which a complete 12-month cycle of statistics was available, Ladder 1 – the truck he wants to sideline – was dispatched 1,199 times. Only 21 of those occasions involved a house or some other structure that was on fire.
On average, said Fontaine, the truck was pressed into service once every 7.5 hours for incidents that included cooking fires (18), backup for rescue squads (139), motor vehicle accidents (127) and false alarms (640 times).
But Oakland says the statistics don't tell the whole story. Aerial trucks carry much of the same equipment as a rescue squad and they're often dispatched to a variety of medical emergencies, from car accidents to reports of carbon monoxide poisoning, because rescue squads may be unable to reach the victims as quickly as one of the ladder trucks.
“They're rolling for whatever incident a citizen perceives to be a true emergency,” he says.
Chief Gary Lataille was sympathetic to the union's concerns, saying the loss of staff does not make residents or firefighters safer. But Lataille said he recognizes the city is in a fiscal crisis and he intends to honor the mayor's instructions.
“I will run the fire department under the guidance the mayor tells me to,” said Lataille. “If he tells me to run it with 15 people, I'll run the best fire department I can with 15 people.”
With a budget of roughly $10 million, the fire department spent over $1 million for overtime last fiscal year, according to Lataille. If the mayor's order stands, the chief said he is confident the city will reap substantial savings as a result.
Of the 42 work shifts that elapsed between Jan. 2 and Jan 22, Lataille said staffing fell below the minimum shift complement for 30 of them, requiring the city to call in at least one firefighter to pick up the slack on overtime.
This is the second major clash between the city and the firefighters union in two years in which minimum manning has emerged as a bump on the road to cuts in public safety costs. Former Mayor Susan D. Menard and the IAFF spent several days in Superior Court in 2009 before she won the right to lay off 11 firefighters. They were eventually recalled, but the union later ironed out a new contract that saw the permanent elimination of eight position and the closure of the Fairmount Street Fire Station, shrinking the department from 132 to 124 members.
But Fontaine says the fire department is one of the few places left to find the substantial cuts the city needs to stay solvent and avoid a state takeover of its finances. The state is currently monitoring the financial activities of the city, including plans to float a $12 million bond to wipe out accumulated deficits, the linchpin of the city's strategy for remaining operationally solvent into the foreseeable future.
“If we can't find structural savings in the fire department going forward, it might mean the difference between falling under state control – or not,” said Fontaine.