Firefighters and city bicker over OT policy

A new city policy aimed at reining in overtime spending on fire protection in the new fiscal year sparked a ten-alarm escalation in tensions between the Menino administration and rank-and-file firefighters last week. The Dorchester-based union representing Boston’s firefighters condemned Mayor Menino and the fire department during a press conference at a Neponset Avenue firehouse— Engine 20—one of three houses across the city that were shut down for the day by the department.
 At least one firehouse per day has been closed across the city over the last week as a result of the new order.

The so-called “brown-outs” were prompted by an aggressive new policy meant to scale back overtime spending. In the past, replacement firefighters were hired on — at an overtime rate— to replace those who called in sick for their 48-hour tour. Under a new rule announced a week ago Tuesday, the department will now only hire a certain number of replacement firefighters to staff companies and then temporarily close firehouses as needed as a cost-savings measure. No firefighters have been laid off under the new policy, which could impact as many as four companies citywide per shift.

Ed Kelly, president of Boston Firefighters Union Local 718, speaks at a press conference at the Engine 20 fire station on Wednesday, July 1, 2009. Photo by Bill ForryEd Kelly, president of Boston Firefighters Union Local 718, speaks at a press conference at the Engine 20 fire station on Wednesday, July 1, 2009. Photo by Bill Forry

Edward Kelly, the president of the Florian Hall-based Local 718 union, unloaded on the Menino administration for “putting the peoples of Dorchester and East Boston and South Boston’s lives in jeopardy.” Kelly spoke from a podium adorned with a sign proclaiming, “You and your family are in DANGER!”

Kelly said that the brown-outs were an attempt to embarrass the firefighters at the expense of public safety. He pointed to an incident on Pierce Ave. last Wednesday – in which a resident was stricken by a medical emergency. Kelly claimed that the fire company that responded to the scene from its Peabody Square house were there in four minutes. Had the Engine 20 house been active, its truck would have responded in two minutes, Kelly said, adding,
“Seconds count. Lives count. This is outrageous. We’re needlessly putting lives in danger.”

Kelly noted that “this is the beginning of the fiscal year. This city has money. There’s $750 million in the general fund. They can afford to staff the firehouses in this city,” he said.

Firefighters have been “volunteering” to staff the Neponset Ave. firehouse, against the orders of the department’s brass.

Roderick Fraser, the Fire commissioner, said that the union’s event was a “stunt” aimed at embarrassing the mayor instead of acknowledging the underlying problem: phony sick days.

“It’s not leaving the neighborhood in peril,” said Fraser. “What the union won’t tell you is that we take companies out of service every day for maintenance and training, usually to Moon Island (in Quincy). They are not available to respond while they’re down there. And we have other companies cover them.”

Fraser said up to eight companies per shift are effectively browned-out for maintenance and training during any given shift. Kelly rebutted Fraser’s position, claiming that training and maintenance schedules do not equate with unmanned firehouses.

“We hired 15 people on overtime today,” Fraser said. “We’re budgeted to hire about 12 people per day [in replacement service]. We are trying to live within our budget. We have $12.25 million for overtime in the new fiscal year,” Fraser said. “[On Wednesday], we had 33 total absences. It’s about normal, but it’s high. We’ve had a longstanding problem with sick leave abuse in this department.”

Fraser attributes the high absentee rate to a “subset of people who look at sick days as another personal or vacation day.”

“This city is well covered. We have a very professional force, but there are always people who want to take advantage of the system,” Fraser said. “This is a political stunt, really. We’ve developed a budget plan that didn’t close any stations, didn’t lay off any firefighters, and there were no demotions. The union’s saying we want more. Well, people need to wake up and realize we have economic hard times.

“If the union wants to help, encourage their members to come to work. If everyone showed up to a regular tour like they’re supposed to, we wouldn’t be browning out anybody.”

Kelly countered by saying that, “We get sick just like everyone else. We’re down 200 firefighters since I came on 12 years ago. That’s why overtime costs are up. If they hired more firefighters, overtime costs would go down. It’s just that simple.”

City Councillor-at-large Michael Flaherty, who is running against Menino this fall, attended the press conference as a show of support for the firefighters.

“It’s these neighborhoods today. The question is, whose neighborhood will it be tomorrow.? Our mayor is allowing his fight with the firefighters to get in the way of public safety,” he said.

Flaherty blamed Menino’s administration for failing to address allegations of high absenteeism in the past.

“This administration has sat on its hands and turned their heads from these abuses,” Flaherty said. “Am I outraged about sick time and pension abuse? You bet I am.”

Flaherty says he has proposed a tracking system that would identify trends of sick time abuse and that the Menino administration’s present system is inadequate.