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PAWTUCKET â€” Despite an effective date of April 1, the Grebien Administration showed it wasn't fooling when it came to instituting key changes in the Pawtucket Fire Department that are designed to cut down on overtime costs.
According to city officials, members of the firefighters' union received a letter several months ago notifying them that beginning April 1 and running through June 30, there is a new plan to redeploy staffing, based on more than three called-in absences on a given shift, from the mandatory contractual minimum of 31 firefighters down to 28.
In addition, the administration has notified union members that a 25 percent co-pay for health and dental insurance benefits was being put into effect as of April 1 and running through June 30, and that there will be no lump sum payment for eight holidays during that period.
Mayor Donald Grebien and his director of administration, Antonio Pires, have said the changes are necessary due to estimates that the Fire Department's overtime budget of $2.2 million for the current fiscal year (ending June 30) will be over by $700,000, totaling $2.9 million.
Pires told The Times on Monday that such a level of overtime is â€śunsustainable as the city continues to take all steps to stay out of bankruptcy and remain financially solvent.â€ť
He also noted that under the City Charter, the mayor is compelled to rein in costs that exceed what the City Council-approved budget has allocated.
Grebien, too, has stated publicly that he believes the Charter allows for a collective bargaining agreement to be superceded and there be a reduced allotment to a municipal department based on a perceived deficit.
Pires said that Fire Chief William Sisson â€świll direct the redeployments under the overall guiding principle that public safety will not be compromised.â€ť
He said this may include assigning fewer firefighters to a given shift or more to another, to maintain an optimum complement that avoids overtime as much as possible, or adjusting staffing levels on an engine apparatus.
Pires said the main issue is overtime staffing. He said that on Sunday, for example, there were 11 call-ins by fire personnel over two shifts saying they would not be reporting for their shift as scheduled. He said this is an ongoing situation that has required that the absent regularly scheduled firefighters be replaced by bringing in other firefighters at overtime pay to take their place, at a significant added cost to taxpayers.
Pires said that, contrary to some rumors that have been swirling in the city and on social media websites, there are no plans to close a fire station. He did say that the redeployment could require reducing the number of engines out of Station 4 on Cottage Street from two to one. Because this station has two engine trucks, it is possible that the older Engine 4 truck is not staffed on some shifts.
However, that would still leave an operable ladder truck there for an emergency such as a major mill structure fire, and the station itself would remain open.
Pires said that with the redeployment, it is possible that in a given circumstance, a particular fire station may have to be closed for a particular shift on a particular night. â€śBut that is far from closing a station down, which again is not what is being done under the redeployment.â€ť
Fire Chief William Sisson said that because the complement of firefighters is down by 18, he expects there to be a shortage of personnel on every shift, which will mean running at minimum staffing of 28 firefighters rather than the 31 that the current contract requires. At least, this was the scenario on all three shifts since the changes went into effect on Sunday, he said.
Sisson said that Engine 4 was taken out of service at Station 4 on Cottage Street, but there is still Ladder 1 and two rescue vehicles remaining. â€śThe Cottage Street Station is not closed but we are running short one engine in that district,â€ť the chief stated.
Sisson declined to comment on whether he thought the changes would have any impact on public safety.
The firefighters' union, I.A.F.F. Local 1261, has filed a grievance on the various changes imposed by the administration. Fire Capt. Robert Neill, president of the union, said the contract requiring the minimum staffing of 31 firefighters is based on national fire safety formulas and protocols and was negotiated back in 2009.
â€śWe believe that any reduction in manning translates to a safety issue, for both the firefighters and the people living in that district,â€ť said Neill.
He also said that the decision to take one of the engine companies out of service at Station 4 creates the potential that people living in that district will have to wait longer for a response.
Neill said the union gave the administration â€śalternativesâ€ť back in September that were meant to address the overtime situation but these were rejected. He said he also believes the $700,000 figure projected back in January as being an overrun in the overtime budget is actually far less, at an estimated $300,00 to $400,000.
Neill also maintained that the administration has helped to create the overtime budget problem by not hiring the appropriate number of employees needed for the fire department. He said that while the city saved on one hand in salary and benefits, the overtime costs went up, creating a â€śCatch-22 situation.â€ť
The firefighters' contact, as well as that of the city's police officers, expires on June 30.