For families, Providence fire dept. overhaul takes its toll

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fire wives_200220

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – When her daughter starts the first grade in September, Amanda Lopez knows she’s going to have some explaining to do.

Six-year-old Sophie is going to ask where her dad is on her first day of school and Amanda is going to give an all-too-familiar response.

“He’s at work,” she’ll explain.

Lately, Derek Lopez is always at work. Much like his 361 fellow members of the Providence fire department, he just started his second week being required to work an average of 56 hours, a 14-hour increase from the work schedule he had during his first nine years on the job.

It’s all part of Mayor Jorge Elorza’s decision to move from four platoons to three, a change the mayor says will ultimately save the city at least $5 million a year by eliminating the need for callback overtime. The basic argument: by having around 120 firefighters on each platoon, the city should have no problem meeting the required 94 men on each shift without needing to bring in firefighters from other platoons and pay them time-and-a-half for the extra hours.

But while lawyers for the city and the firefighters’ union squabble over how much the workers should be paid for a 33% increase to their work week, Amanda and other wives are saying it’s difficult to put a price on the amount of home time that will be lost if the city maintains its three-platoon schedule.

“It’s hard,” Lopez said. “Kids want to see their dad.”

Amanda is not alone.

Amy Degnan’s husband, Doug, has been on the job since 1992. The couple has four teenage children, one of whom was treated for cancer two years ago. The child has made a full recovery, but Amy said she has no idea how she would have handled her son’s treatment program with a husband working an average of 56 hours each week.

Even now, she’s concerned about the lack of time Doug is going to have to see the kids.

“It’s like being a single parent,” she said.

Kristie Rose, who has two small children with her husband Stephen, acknowledged she knew a firefighter’s schedule wasn’t Monday-through-Friday when she got married, but said the recent changes are too much.

“Our kids have T-ball and dance classes and they want mommy and daddy to be there,” she said.

A 56-hour, three-platoon structure is fairly common among firefighters outside of Rhode Island. (Only three other departments in the state have moved to three platoons.) What is less common is the work week that Providence is using with its changes.

Under the new system, firefighters continue to work two 10-hour days followed by two 14-hour nights, followed by two days off. Under the four-platoon structure, they had four days off.

Most departments that operate under a 56-hour work week require firefighters to work 24 hours on and 48 hours off or 48 hours on and 96 hours off. It’s unclear why the Elorza administration chose to keep the old work week but eliminate two days off.

Either way, Public Safety Commission Steven Pare said he understands the decision to restructure the fire department is “disruptive,” but indicated the city is trying to make the transition “as smooth as possible.”

“Our firefighters have made a lot of sacrifices and the families probably make more than the individual firefighters,” Pare said.

Pare said the city honored all vacation requests that were made prior to the changes, but acknowledged that doing so has forced mandatory callback shifts – beyond 56 hours – over the last week. Union President Paul Doughty said every shift has required mandatory callback since the change was implemented last Sunday.

In the long run, Pare said he believes the three-platoon structure will provide greater predictability when it comes to family schedules.

The families aren’t so sure.

While the vast majority of firefighters already worked more than 42 hours because of callback overtime, a mandatory 56-hour week is taking its toll.

Deborah McIntyre Hughes said her husband’s plan was always to work 30 years as a firefighter and retire at the age of 58. The couple hoped to send their children to college and spend more time with one another.

Those plans changed Wednesday when Michael Hughes decided to file for retirement early, after 27 years on the job.

Deborah said she feels like her husband’s hand has been forced. The current schedule is unsustainable, she said.

“It’s heartbreaking and I feel to my very core a tragedy is going to happen,” she said. “People cannot work these kinds of hours with very little time off and remain capable.”

The group of wives isn’t going away. Shortly after the shift changes were made, they launched a Facebook group aimed at organizing families impacted by the new work week. The group now has 532 members.

“We’re all one big family,” Lopez said.

Continue the discussion on FacebookDan McGowan ( dmcgowan@wpri.com ) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @danmcgowan

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