PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Rhode Island’s largest fire department hasn’t had a permanent fire chief in four years, and it doesn’t look that will be changing any time soon.
Providence City Council leadership, fed up with funding a vacant job, cut the fire chief’s salary from the budget plan that passed the Finance Committee over the weekend. The full council is slated to vote on the plan on Wednesday, though Mayor Jorge Elorza has threatened to veto it.
“It’s been funded for four years and the city has refused to hire somebody,” Finance Chairman John Igliozzi told WPRI 12. “Clearly there are able-bodied individuals who could be promoted to the fire chief of the city of Providence.”
However, Igliozzi said that if the city ever does find a candidate for fire chief, “we would be more than willing to add the funding.”
The fire department, which responded to more than 45,000 calls last year, hasn’t had a permanent chief since the retirement of Clarence Cunha in July 2015. Now-retired Assistant Chief Scott Mello was briefly promoted to acting chief at the time, then moved back to assistant chief in November 2015.
Since then, the acting chief role has been occupied by Public Safety Commissioner Steven Paré, who oversees the city’s police department, fire department and emergency management agency.
Paré told WPRI 12 he doesn’t plan to actively search for a fire chief if the council doesn’t fund the position. He acknowledged he hasn’t actively searched for a candidate in about a year, but disagreed with the decision to cut the funding.
“I think it’s an important position that needs to be funded,” Paré said. He said the unused fire chief salary has been sent back to the general fund while the job has been vacant.
The city paid $25,000 in 2016 to a Maryland executive search firm called Public Safety Solutions, which described itself in bid documents at the time as a “uniquely qualified fire, emergency medical and rescue services management consulting firm.”
The job posting prepared by the firm pitched Providence as a hub of creativity, describing its universities and vibrant restaurant scene. It said the ideal candidate “MUST share Mayor Elorza’s commitment to build the new Providence — a city that works for all its residents; a city committed to innovation; and a city that provides opportunity for all.”
Paré said the firm did provide 25 to 30 applicants, and several people were offered the job but turned it down. He said the CEO of the firm, Les Adams, still occasionally sends over candidates he comes across.
Reached by phone, Adams said a number of candidates were interviewed for the job, but said he hadn’t worked on the project in about a year. Asked to elaborate on the firm’s efforts, he said corporate policy barred him from speaking to reporters.
Paré said part of the difficulty in finding a chief was the mandatory retirement age of 60, which has now been raised to 67. Providence firefighters are still required to retire at 60, but can now apply for the chief job after that age.
A change in the fire department’s structure from four platoons to three in 2015 also led to mass retirements, which limited the number of internal applicants. The structure was later changed back after an extended public battle between Elorza and the union.
Without a permanent fire chief, day-to-day firefighting efforts have been led by a rotating cast of battalion chiefs, assistant chiefs and deputy assistant chiefs. Derek Silva, president of the Providence Fire Fighters IAFF Local 799 union, said he doesn’t think “everyday emergencies” are affected by the lack of fire chief. But he said administratively, the department is “limping along” without one.
“Our infrastructure … is the worst it’s been,” Silva said. “We have trucks that qualify for antique license plates.”
He said depending on the day, different department chiefs will tend to administrative duties such as attending meetings of the Local Emergency Planning Commission.
“Chief X goes one month and Chief Y goes the next month,” Silva said. “There’s no long-term planning.”
In Silva’s view, Paré does a “fairly good job” as acting fire chief as he also juggles his commissioner duties. But he said the department needs a chief with a firefighter background; Paré is a former colonel of the Rhode Island State Police.
“You wouldn’t run a private business with 500 employees with no head of the organization,” Silva said.
At a recent meeting of the City Council Finance Committee, Igliozzi asked council members to share what they would cut from Elorza’s proposed budget. Councilman James Taylor, a former Providence firefighter himself, suggested defunding the unfilled chief position.
The budget plan approved by the committee on Saturday cut $279,348, removing funding for both the unfilled fire chief job and a vacant deputy assistant chief position.
The budget plan also proposes cutting Paré’s salary by nearly $40,000.
Elorza said he plans to veto the budget if it reaches his desk, and criticized the council in a news conference on Monday for making “petty” decisions to “settle personal scores,” including by cutting Paré’s salary.
Asked Tuesday what Elorza thinks of the plan to cut the fire chief, his communications director Emily Crowell cited the mayor’s previous criticism of the “lack of content expert input” in the construction of the council’s budget plan.