Providence ‘reshuffling resources’ in fire dept to fill vacancies Saturday night

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Providence Public Safety Commissioner Steven Pare said Saturday the fire department is “reshuffling resources” because the city doesn’t have enough firefighters on duty and officials have been unable to fill vacancies.

Pare told WPRI.com there were 83 firefighters on duty Saturday evening, well under the 94 members that are supposed to be working at all times under the “minimum manning” provision in the city’s existing contract with the firefighters’ union.

“We are going through the process of properly staffing the stations in a strategic way,” Pare said.

Pare declined to say exactly what changes were being made Saturday night, but did indicate that some fire engines that typically require four members are being asked to work with three.

“This isn’t a crisis,” Pare said. “We’re going to cover the city. When we don’t have firefighters willing to fill vacancies, we’re going to manage the resources that exist.”

Paul Doughty, president of the city firefighters’ union, told WPRI.com there were only 77 firefighters on duty Saturday evening. He said some members who wanted to work were sent home because they had already worked too many consecutive hours. That rarely-enforced provision states that no firefighter can work more than 38 consecutive hours unless there is an emergency. (The rule was amended in 2011 to state that rescue officers and technicians can work up to 48 consecutive hours.)

“They are playing Russian roulette with public safety,” Doughty said. “Fire trucks are in places that matter. In emergencies, seconds count.”

Evan England, a spokesman for the mayor, said the city did attempt to order firefighters to work, but officials were unable to reach off duty workers.

Neither Doughty nor the Providence City Council was made aware of the changes before they were implemented Saturday evening. Councilman Nick Narducci, who represents the North End, told WPRI.com he is concerned that his neighborhood is being left without a ladder truck, a vehicle that is normally staffed by four firefighters. He said the mayor was unable to provide details on the changes Saturday.

“If this is something going without the mayor knowing, I think it’s a pretty sad thing,” Narducci said. “This is a major thing.”

The Elorza administration and the union are currently involved in a charged political and legal dispute over the mayor’s decision to move from four fire platoons to three, a change that forces firefighters to go from working an average of 42 hours each week to an average of 56 hours.

In September, a Superior Court judge ruled that the union has the right to go to grievance arbitration over the schedule change. The city is currently appealing the decision to the Supreme Court. The two sides are scheduled to have an arbitration hearing Dec. 16.

The city has repeatedly argued that it doesn’t believe that a provision in the union’s existing contract that calls for firefighters to work an average of 42 hours each week can supersede the public safety commissioner’s management right to require them to work more hours.

The union’s contract does not expire until June 30, 2017.

The union has said it agrees that the city can move forward with a three-platoon system, but firefighters should be paid a time-and-a-half rate for all hours worked after the average of 42 hours. When the city made the schedule change on Aug. 2, it gave the firefighters an 8% pay increase.

By moving from four platoons to three, Elorza has said the city will have more breathing room to ensure that it has the contractually required 94 firefighters on duty at all times before it needs to call back members of other platoons and pay them overtime for the extra hours. The firefighters’ union has said Providence could accomplish the same goal by hiring more firefighters.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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