PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – He’s become the poster boy for Mayor Jorge Elorza’s crusade to curb costs in the Providence fire department, the example the mayor uses in nearly every public comment on his dispute with the firefighters’ union.
Fire Rescue Capt. Vincent D’Ambra was paid more than $116,000 in callback overtime alone between July 1, 2014 and June 30, 2015, making his total salary $198,000.
“We have a firefighter who makes $100,000 a year just on overtime,” Elorza told reporters earlier this month. “It’s a problem and it’s a problem that we’re going to confront head on.”
But a closer look at city payroll figures reveals the complex nature of the problem Elorza is trying to address.
In order to earn more than $100,000 in overtime pay, D’Ambra, 53, logged an average of 84 hours a week for the entire year, according to data obtained through a public records request. That averages out to 12 hours a day, every day, for the entire year.
“I don’t sleep much,” D’Ambra told WPRI.com Wednesday, fresh off working 86 hours in a four-day period. While actual fires have dropped dramatically across the country over the last 30 years, calls for rescue services are as high as ever.
“If you get a chance to cat nap, it feels like a prize,” he said.
- Read: Everything you need to know about the Providence firefighter battle
- Also: How Providence’s fire schedule is unique
- More: Judge sends dispute to arbitration
Between 2007 and 2014, Providence firefighters responded to at least 40,000 calls a year, according to records reviewed by WPRI.com. In any given year, at least 75% of those calls require a rescue truck to report to the scene. Union President Paul Doughty regularly calls the department one of the busiest in the country.
D’Ambra is one of 42 firefighters who are supposed to be assigned to the city’s seven rescue trucks, but in 20 years working in the division, he said he can’t remember a time when the division was fully staffed. Even now that the city has moved four fire platoons to three, he said injuries or sick time have created holes.
Those holes lead to overtime – and D’Ambra acknowledged that he rarely turns down the extra hours.
The union contract calls for firefighters to earn time-and-a-half for each hour they work over 42 hours. Of the 15 highest-paid members of the fire department during the 2014-15 fiscal year, nine came from the rescue division. All of them averaged at least 60 hours of work each week.
The pay may be lucrative, but the hours can be mentally draining.
Working on Rescue 1, which covers much of the South Side, D’Ambra said he’s been a first responder at the scene for gunshot victims and car accidents as well as heart attacks and strokes. Recently, the uptick in heroin use has led to an increase in overdoses.
“Sometimes I don’t want to come back,” D’Ambra said. “But one you’re in it, you just do it. It’s adrenaline.”A systemic issue
Because D’Ambra already works more than 80 hours in a week, the recent changes in the department are more of a hit to his wallet than his schedule.
In August, Elorza ordered the department to move from four platoons to three, which required firefighters to go from working an average of 42 hours per week to an average of 56 hours per week. A provision in federal law requires firefighters to be paid time-and-a-half after working 53 hours.
The change, Elorza said, would ultimately allow Providence to save $5 million a year because the city would be able to meet the contractually-required 94 workers on duty at all times without having to bring in firefighters from other platoons and pay overtime for the extra hours.
The union and the administration are now locked in a legal battle that could take more than a year to resolve. The union contends that while the platoon changes are considered a management right, the current contract with the city calls for firefighters to be paid overtime for working more than 42 hours in a week. The Elorza administration gave them an 8% pay increase for the 14 hours that were tacked on to the schedule.
A Superior Court judge has ruled that the two sides should go to grievance arbitration to settle the dispute, but the city is expected to appeal to the Supreme Court. If an arbitrator awards the firefighters time-and-a-half pay for the extra hours, the city’s internal auditor projects Providence could be forced to pay close to $10 million in back wages.
“Obviously, there is a systemic issue under the current contract,” Evan England, the mayor’s spokesman, said Wednesday.D’Ambra: Dispute is “just politics”
But it’s unclear whether the administration considered other changes to the contract before it moved forward with its three-platoon plan. Doughty, the union president, maintains he would have worked with Elorza to find $5 million in savings, pointing to a previous agreement he negotiated with former Mayor Angel Taveras.
Privately, city officials scoff at the idea that the union would have been willing to reduce minimum manning or restructure the department to include more firefighters in the rescue division. Doughty maintains that hiring more firefighters would curb overtime spending.
While the two sides jockey for public support, D’Ambra is pressing on.
He said he doesn’t want to retire for another seven years and brushed off the mayor’s criticism as “just politics.”
He acknowledged that not all rescue calls are life and death. The department’s most recent annual report shows his truck responded to calls for flu-like symptoms, diarrhea or dizziness in 2014. But even the routine calls can quickly turn into an emergency.
D’Ambra said he recently reported to the scene of a person having an asthma attack, but the victim’s family appeared more interested in a confrontation with him. He said the victim was barely breathing when the treatment began.
A life was saved.
“That’s all the thanks I need,” D’Ambra said.
All in a day’s work. A long day.