By Elizabeth F. McNamara
The East Greenwich Fire Department has two vacancies and there’s no one on the horizon to fill those spots, which means an increase in overtime for at least the next several months, possibly until June 2019.
The firefighters union, which filed a grievance late last month over the hiring delay, faults interim Fire Chief Kevin Robinson for failing to open a hiring list, “creating an unnecessary burden and safety hazard” for the firefighters.
Robinson has said he estimates firefighter overtime would reach $1.2 million in fiscal year 2019 (July 2018 through June 2019).
Overtime comes from covering vacation, sick or personal days, firefighters out on injury (IOD), and any vacancies in the department. Fiscal year 2018 saw a higher-than-average number of firefighters out on “injured on duty” (IOD), which resulted in around $800,000 in total overtime for the year.
Overtime is projected to increase this fiscal year because of a change in the firefighters contract, upping platoon size to nine from eight. That ninth firefighter had served in a “floater” position, able to cover for another firefighter who was out without causing overtime. By turning the floater position into a permanent part of the platoon and not adding additional staff to serve as floaters, increased overtime was a guaranteed result.
Indeed, overtime for July was about $90,000 and $84,000 for August.
But union president Bill Perry said overtime in July and August is always higher than average because a lot of firefighters take vacation during those months.
Compared to last year, the number of firefighters out with injuries is down, but there are still three firefighters out. According to Perry, one of those firefighters has been ready to return to work since June but has not been allowed to return. Town officials dispute that.
As for the vacancies, one was caused when a firefighter left the department in June. He had announced his plans to leave in February. The second vacancy happened when Robinson fired Rob Warner in late July.
Robinson has made no move to open a hiring list, despite knowing for several months that there would be at least one vacancy. In addition, Town Council members have railed against high overtime numbers.
Robinson had sought Town Council approval in July to use the Central Coventry Fire District’s hiring list (Town Manager Gayle Corrigan is the district manager for Central Coventry). While the EG Town Council approved that move, CCFD Chief Frank Brown did not.
In an interview last week, Robinson said he wanted to have area departments and districts use a single test, which potentially would give each department a larger number of applicants. In Rhode Island, each department or fire district runs its own hiring list and its own tests. Massachusetts, where Robinson lives and worked until coming to work in East Greenwich, there is a statewide hiring list.
He acknowledged organizing such a new system might take time.
Of course, a hiring list does not solve the problem, though it is the first step. If the town wants to use the state fire academy for training, there are only two classes a year. The next one is in February and it is already half full.Training takes 12 weeks, then there’s a 12-week period where new hires shadow firefighters. If EGFD gets two candidates into the February academy, they will not be fully on their own until June. In other words, the town would be paying overtime for two positions for the next nine months, at a cost of just under $14,000 a month.
The town has never sent trainees through the state fire academy. Instead, it has trained new hires in house or in conjunction with other departments. For instance, if East Greenwich, North Kingstown and Middletown each had two new hires, the departments would do a combined training for all six together.
Chief Robinson said he was open to alternatives.
“We have and will explore all options but at the end of the training we expect the members to be trained and certified as Firefighter I/II and Hazardous Material Operational Level Responders,” he said.
Any option would have to start with a hiring list. Robinson would not specify when he would open such a list.
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