Providence firefighters, still without contract, increase assistance to Brown EMS

Tuesday, October 4, 2005

While their union continues to fight for a new contract with the city, Providence firefighters who are trained as emergency medical technicians have been called onto Brown’s campus with increasing frequency in recent weeks.

Brown called Providence ambulances on multiple occasions last month to respond to calls Brown Emergency Medical Services could not handle. When Brown’s one ambulance is already responding to a call, the Department of Public Safety calls Providence’s EMS to respond. The use of Providence personnel to respond to campus emergencies has become more frequent because of an increase in emergency calls, said Richard Lapierre, manager of Brown EMS.

Lapierre said he expected that once the number of calls were totaled they would show that this September was busier than Sept. 2004.

Most Providence firefighters are part of the Local 799, a chapter of the International Firefighters Union. The union was in negotiations with the city of Providence before the election of Mayor David Cicilline ’83. The contract discussions have become more contentious since Cicilline took office and sought to bring the city out of a financial crisis, said Paul Doughty, president of the Local 799.

The dispute between the union and Cicilline originated with a campaign promise the mayor made in an e-mail seeking the support of the chapter during his 2002 mayoral campaign, Doughty said.

“One of the most important responsibilities I would bear as mayor is to resolve the current contract dispute. I pledge to do that within 30 days of office,” Cicilline wrote in a July 2002 e-mail.

But in an August interview, Cicilline said promising the resolution of contract negotiations is impossible because people cannot predict the behavior of the other negotiating party.

The union and the city continue to try to negotiate a contract while also seeking arbitration to resolve the multi-year dispute. The arbitration proceedings are scheduled to conclude by the end of this year, though further delays are possible, Doughty said.

The two parties continue their antagonistic relationship because of the mayor’s drive to reform the contracts and make them “affordable to the taxpayers of the city,” according to a June mayoral press release.

Cicilline’s administration has proposed a cut in the firefighters’ contract by altering their pension, decreasing staff and adding a 10 percent co-share for their health care, Doughty said.

Doughty said the city’s plan to share health care costs is more of a political move than an effort to reform the system.

“It just shifts (the cost),” Doughty said. “No other firefighters I know of in this state pay for their health care.”

Though the union would not welcome the change to its members’ health care, many firefighters see the change as inevitable. However, the union strongly believes in maintaining minimum manning of fire stations and trucks, Doughty said.

We must “make our staffing terms comply with the standard of four persons per engine,” Doughty said, referring to a National Fire Protection Association safety standard.

Almost five years without a contract has left the firefighters without raises or an idea of when they can retire, Doughty said.

“As far as I can recall this is the longest unresolved contract in the history of the state,” Doughty said. “Morale-wise, (Cicilline) has broken the back of the fire department. They may just become the archetype city employee.”

The mayor has sought to save the taxpayers money, but Doughty pointed to the millions of tax dollars lost to tax exempt institutions as the reason the city is financially stretched. Five hospitals, five universities and state and local government buildings comprise a significant geographic portion of the city and use a good deal of public services.

“You can only cut the fire department so much. You can only cut the police department so much,” Doughty said.