Corrigan Argues for 56-Hour Work Week; Interim Chief Says He’s ‘Not a Fan’

Town Manager Gayle Corrigan presents her report to the Town Council April 9, 2018.

By Elizabeth F. McNamara

Interim Fire Chief Kevin Robinson said during the Town Council meeting – after being asked by a resident during public comment – that he was “not a fan” of the 24-hour shifts required under Town Manager Gayle Corrigan’s proposed restructuring plan.

Corrigan presented her plan of action to reduce fire department overtime expenses to the Town Council Monday night, arguing that changing the shift structure from 4 platoons to 3 could allow the department to go from 36 to 30 employees while building in staff to cover for illness or injury.

That 56-hour work week plan is even now before Superior Court Judge Susan McGuirl. The town sued the firefighters in December asking that the court make a declaration that the town has the right to change the structure of the department unilaterally (i.e. without negotiating the change with the firefighters union).

Corrigan wants the council to approve the 56-hour work week but put it on hold until after McGuirl issues a ruling. A hearing is set on the town’s suit Monday, April 23.

Councilman Mark Schwager asked what to expect at that hearing.

Town Solicitor David D’Agostino said the town has asked Judge McGuirl to make a “judgment on the pleadings” – in other words, make a decision using just what is in front of her, with no additional discovery and no addition testimony. The judge could rule on April 23, he said, or she could ask for additional evidence.

“I don’t know if the court is going to be prepared to rule at that time,” D’Agostino said.

Under Corrigan’s proposed three-platoon system, firefighters would work 24 hours on, 48 hours off. The plan calls for 30 firefighters – 8 plus 2 floaters per shift – down from the current 36 firefighters. She recommends laying off the extra 6 firefighters based on seniority. In a four-platoon system, firefighters typically work 10 hours on, 14 hours off, 10 hours on, 24 hours off, 14 hours on, 96 hours off.

She argued that with seven firefighters on “injured on duty” status, it’s like the fire department is already working with only three platoons and she called the proposed reorganization even more of a safety issue than a fiscal one.

After admitting he was not a fan of 24-hour shifts, Chief Robinson said the important thing was to cut down on the number of hours firefighters were working, regardless of the shift structure. In his budget for fiscal year 2019, Robinson has a $1.2 million line item for overtime. Three quarters of a year into fiscal year 2018, $573,000 has been spent on EGFD overtime. Finance Director Linda Dykeman projects the final number to be just under $800,000. Meanwhile, the number of firefighters has remained constant at 36 since 2006, while calls have gone up nearly a third.

Corrigan also outlined possible changes in fire service delivery in the event Judge McGuirl rules against the town, including allowing the chief reduce the number of firefighters on duty overnight, making the department a volunteer service or privatizing the emergency medical rescue service.

Corrigan said she will present a candidate to fill the deputy chief position on an interim basis at the Town Council meeting May 14. No vote on the plan was taken Monday night.

For more information about Corrigan’s presentation, see our earlier story. Watch the entire meeting here.




Corrigan Presents Plan for 56-Hour Firefighter Work Week

Station One on Main Street.

By Elizabeth F. McNamara

Among other ideas, the town manager suggests returning to a volunteer fire service and/or contracting out EMS service.

East Greenwich, R.I. – Town Manager Gayle Corrigan will present her plan to restructure the fire department from the current four platoons to three at the Town Council meeting Monday (EGFD Restructuring Proposal 4/2018).

In a four-platoon system, firefighters typically work 10 hours on, 14 hours off, 10 hours on, 24 hours off, 14 hours on, 96 hours off.

Under Corrigan’s proposed three-platoon system, firefighters would work 24 hours on, 48 hours off. The plan calls for 30 firefighters – 8 plus 2 floaters per shift – down from the current 36 firefighters. She recommends laying off the extra 6 firefighters.

Corrigan recommends the Town Council adopt the reorganization but hold off implementation until after Superior Court Judge Susan McGuirl rules on the town’s pending lawsuit against the firefighters on whether or not it has the right to reorganize the platoons without consent of the union. The town and the firefighters are in the middle of a three-year contract, from 2016 to 2019.

In her proposal, Corrigan suggests other possible cost-saving measures if the court rules against it. Among those suggestions would be to decrease the number of firefighters on overnight, a time when the number of incidents is lower.  Corrigan also suggests the possible return to a partial or largely volunteer fire service and subcontracting out EMS service.

Corrigan also says in her plan that the department needs a deputy chief – a position she has kept vacant since her arrival last June. She will recommend an interim deputy fire chief at the May 14 Town Council meeting.




 

 

 

Ethics Commission to Investigate Complaint Against Firefighter

Firefighter union president Bill Perry talks with former interim Fire Chief Olsen last November.

By Elizabeth F. McNamara

Former Fire Chief Peter Henrikson filed the complaint against Lt. Bill Perry, saying he and his brother should not work in same platoon.

The state Ethics Commission is investigating a complaint filed against firefighter union president Bill Perry – a lieutenant – that accuses him of conflicts of interest because his brother, a firefighter – was placed in the same platoon.

In its “Notice of Determination,” the Ethics Commission writes, “the … complaint alleges facts sufficient to constitute a violation of the provisions of the Rhode Island Code of Ethics.”

On its website, the Ethics Commission describes such an “initial determination to investigate” this way:

The decision to investigate does not address the validity of the complaint; rather, it merely indicates that the allegations properly fall under the provisions of the Code of Ethics. Neither the complainant nor the respondent participates in the initial determination.

Peter Henrikson, who served as EGFD chief from 2010 to 2013, filed the complaint (Perry Complaint).

In the complaint, Henrikson cites an Ethics Commission opinion from 2016, in response to  Perry’s request for a ruling on his brother James Perry’s application for a job with the East Greenwich Fire Department. In that application, then-Fire Chief Russell McGillivray said it was “very unlikely” that James Perry would be assigned to Bill Perry’s platoon because of Bill Perry’s position of authority over his brother.

James Perry did end up in Bill Perry’s platoon, Platoon B. However, Bill Perry works on Engine 1 at Station One (on Main Street) and James Perry works on Rescue 2 at Station Two (on Frenchtown Road) and James Perry is supervised by two other firefighters, a lieutenant and a captain.

Bill Perry’s lawyer, Elizabeth Wiens, said there would only be a conflict if Bill was in charge of evaluating his brother. He is not, she said.

Another accusation in Henrikson’s complaint is that Bill and James Perry are eligible for additional overtime because Platoon B recently lost its floater position due to a change in the contract.

That, however, would be impossible, since the overtime due to the loss of the floater would be available only when members of Platoon B are working. Members of that platoon would be the only firefighters not able to work overtime then since they would already be working that shift.

Henrikson’s complaint also addresses fill-in procedures – suggesting that Perry could have a hand in helping his brother get overtime spots. According to firefighters, overtime slots are filled off a list – the first name on the list gets the call, and so on; they are not determined by the ranking officer. Henrikson included a copy of EGFD fill-in procedures and other documents that are not public. He did not respond to a request about how he possessed those documents.

Henrikson has been advising Town Manager Gayle Corrigan in her efforts to restructure the fire department and he has met with both interim fire chiefs. His complaint was notarized by Town Solicitor David D’Agostino. His wife, Kristen, works as clerk for the fire department. Henrikson retired from the department just as it went from a separate fire district to merging into a town department.

Two months before Henrikson retired, the firefighters union – headed by Perry – passed a vote of no confidence in Henrikson as chief by a margin of 36-1.

Perry has 20 days from March 27 to respond to the complaint, although technically he has yet to receive the “notice of determination” that was sent to him via certified mail on that date. His lawyer has since obtained a copy from the commission via email. 

Henrikson had given Station One as Perry’s address but all EGFD mail goes to Town Hall. Perry only learned of the complaint after a resident tweeted about it Saturday. Town officials gave Perry the original complaint on Tuesday, 19 days after it had been sent by certified mail. The commission’s letter of determination was sent by certified mail on March 27; Perry has not yet received it from the town. 

In a letter to Town Solicitor D’Agostino (Wiens to D’Agostino 4/2/18), Perry lawyer Wiens outlined her objections to the town’s failure to deliver Perry’s mail in a timely fashion and questioned Henrikson’s access to town documents. She called Henrikson’s complaint the act of a “disgruntled former chief.”



 

Trash Can Fire at EGHS Slowed By Parent’s Use of Fire Extinguisher

By Elizabeth F. McNamara

For the second time in less than four days, the benefits of a handy fire extinguisher were on display – this time at East Greenwich High School, where an oily cloth in a plastic trash basket seems to have caught fire Saturday night in a area of the building that houses both a computer lab and the woodshop.

At the time, the auditorium was screening the movie “The Avengers” – a fundraiser for the high school’s sailing team. The smell of burnt plastic alerted moviegoers to an issue and someone called 911.

“It’s a good thing they were there,” Mears said of the moviegoers. “One of the parents was smart enough to take an extinguisher off the wall, and sprayed underneath the floor,” helping to put out the fire. The door to the classroom was locked. 

It wasn’t much of a fire but it could have been, Mears said.

Beyond the rank odor of burning plastic, the only real damage was the trash basket itself and a couple of floor tiles, Mears said.

The official cause of the fire has yet to be released but Mears said it appeared to have been a case of spontaneous combustion.

Cloths with petroleum-based products need to be aired out and dried completely before disposing of them. Mears said he hangs up oily cloths outside or over the side of an open trash can. Like the middle of a compost pile, an oil-soaked rag or bunch of rags in the bottom of a trash can or  bag will get hot but, because of the oil, the rags can burst into flame.


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Hot Tub Catches Fire After Wednesday Night Power Surge

Volunteers at the Fire Canteen truck hand Dana Gee a cup of hot coffee after the worst was over Wednesday night. Dana’s husband, Mark Gee, state senator, is on the right.

By Elizabeth F. McNamara

It’s a good thing the Gee family stays up late, said Dana Gee Thursday. That’s because her son Griffin Gee, an 8th grader at Cole Middle School, was still up around 11 p.m. Wednesday when he smelled something funny. He looked out his bedroom window and saw flames coming from the hot tub that sits near the house in the backyard. Griffin notified Dana, who was in her office downstairs.

Dana’s other son, Zing, called 911 while Dana grabbed a fire extinguisher they keep at the back door, figured out how to use it (it wasn’t hard, she said) and set to work on the blaze. It just so happened they had two other fire extinguishers that they ended up using as well. Hope Gee, Griffin’s twin sister, opened the door for the firefighters when they arrived and corralled the family’s two dogs. It was a family affair.

“The kids were epic, as were the firemen,” said Dana. She said she was very grateful the family had the fire extinguishers.

“If I had not had the fire extinguishers, there is no question in my mind we would have lost part of our house,” she said. As for doing the dirty work – “I always wanted to be a firefighter,” she joked.

The Gees’ burnt hot tub.

Dana said apparently there had been a power surge somewhere on Cedar Avenue (the Gees live on Middle Road a little west of Cedar) around 10:30 p.m. Somehow that caused a short in their hot tub, which had not been used in  years. All of this took place during the second nor’easter in less than a week, which brought heavy, wet snow and wind.

Dana said she was very grateful, too, for the all-volunteer fire canteen, which shows up to provide food during fires around the state.

“They handed me a hot cup of coffee at around 12:30 a.m.!” she said.


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Fire Dept. Rescues Puppy After Fall Through Cove Ice

cove, ice, puppy, rescue
EGFD Capt. Tom Mears holds the rope attached to Lt. Mert Greene, who is in the water closing in on the puppy.

By Elizabeth F. McNamara

The call came in just before 1 p.m. Friday – a puppy had fallen through the ice in Greenwich Cove off Scalloptown Park. By the time firefighters arrived, the dog had been in the water for maybe 20 minutes and a bystander said the dog had gone under, EGFD Capt. Tom Mears recounted.

“We had somebody in a suit and had the dog recovered within eight minutes,” said Mears.

The “somebody” in question was fire Lt. Mert Greene. Mears was in charge and handled the rope attached to Greene that was used to pull in the firefighter and the puppy (named Archie).

“After several minutes of warming, the dog seemed fine and went home with the owner,” said Mears.

Archie, the puppy rescue from Greenwich Cove after falling through the ice.

“Thank you to the EG Police and EG Fire departments for rescuing our pup in the frozen ice! Special thanks to Mert, our hero😊. Archie is feeling good –  exhausted, but doing fine,” wrote the owner on Facebook Friday afternoon.

 The firefighters practice ice rescues throughout the winter to be ready for instances just like this. Mears explained why the fire department rescues dogs after a practice earlier in January.
“When someone calls about an animal on the ice it’s only a matter of time before a citizen will try to go out to try to save it,” he said. “And then we end up with a disaster.”

 

 

EGFD Uses Ice on Cove for Rescue Practice

Firefighter Steve McKeon heads out on the “Rescue Sled” – he’s attached by a rope to the shore.

By Elizabeth F. McNamara

The Fire Department conducted an ice rescue drill Wednesday on Greenwich Cove, using the weather conditions that happen to be visiting us as a perfect practice opportunity.

Capt. Thomas Mears said all the platoons practice ice drills each year. So far this year, there has been no actual ice rescue call but Mears said at some point during the winter there’s usually a rescue.

Chief Christopher Olsen had never seen the Rescue Sled (see photos) in action, but got to on Wednesday.

In the drill, a firefighter will don a dry suit and go out onto the ice and into the water. From the shore, a firefighter will use the

Firefighter Kevin King poses as a victim (don’t worry, he’s wearing a dry suit) in need of rescue.

Rescue Sled to travel over both ice and open water to reach the person in distress. The person will be pulled onto the sled and then firefighters on shore will pull the sled back to land and safety.

Mears explained why the EGFD will venture out onto the ice to rescue an animal, such as a dog that’s wandered away from an owner during a walk.

“When someone calls about an animal on the ice it’s only a matter of time before a citizen will try to go out to try to save it,” he said. “And then we end up with a disaster.”

Firefighter McKeon on the Rescue Sled.

So, before that can happen, Mears said, EGFD will do what it can to rescue the animal.

Mears said the department had been busy in recent days, mainly because of the very cold weather.

“We are getting burst pipes everywhere,” he said. “Don’t worry about your bills – just turn up your heat.”

Temperatures are expected to drop again this weekend.

 

Town Sues Firefighters, Ups Ante on Negotiations

By Elizabeth F. McNamara

The town filed suit against the East Greenwich firefighters union Tuesday, looking to Superior Court to decide if the town has the right to reorganize the fire department and implement a three-platoon, 56-hour work week. The town is seeking a declaratory judgment regarding its “right to decide the organizational structure, size, and appropriate staffing levels of the East Greenwich Fire Department.”

This follows two weeks of secret negotiations between the town and the firefighters.

“Currently, the Fire Department is incurring approximately 500 hours per week on overtime, which raises serious safety concerns. Clearly, something is wrong, and we are working to address that,” said Town Council President Sue Cienki in a press release sent out at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday. “The Town is asking the Court for guidance and direction to ensure East Greenwich resolves this situation in a manner that is fair and equitable to both the union and taxpayers.”

The firefighters and the town are in the middle of a three-year contract (2016 to 2019) but town officials have been complaining about the contract and what they call excessive overtime since June, when financial consultants Gayle Corrigan and Linda Dykeman (now EG’s town manager and finance director, respectively) focused on the fire department in particular as a potential budget problem area.

Three of the current town council members signed the 2016 agreement – Cienki, Vice President Sean Todd and Councilman Mark Schwager. Cienki and Todd have said they didn’t really know the implications of the contract. Officials have laid blame for the contract on former Town Manager Tom Coyle, who separated from the town in June and whom Corrigan replaced, and former Fire Chief Russ McGillivray, who was dismissed in November.

In her presentation in June, Corrigan highlighted a change in the contract that added a firefighter to each shift, going from eight per shift with a “floater” to cover absences, to nine with no floater. Without the floater, if someone on a shift was sick, on vacation or injured, that shift would have to be filled by someone working overtime. Keeping the floater wouldn’t eliminate all overtime – often there is more than one person out per shift – but it would lower it.

According to union president Bill Perry, during the recent negotiations, the union and the town came to an agreement to forestall implementation of a 56-hour work week (right now, the firefighters work a four-platoon, 42-hour work week).

“We were blindsided by reading the press release on Facebook,” Perry said Tuesday evening, noting that the town had wanted the negotiations to be “hush-hush” and kept out of social media and news outlets.

Perry said he and other union representatives sat down to negotiate with attorney Tim Cavazza (who has made a name for himself getting municipalities to force fire departments into a 56-hour work week), Town Manager Gayle Corrigan and members of the Town Council  for several hours in recent weeks, following Corrigan’s recommendation to restructure the fire department.

“We negotiated in good faith. We came to an agreement – both parties agreed,” said Perry. “Attorney Cavazza sent over a tentative agreement last week and our lawyer has been reviewing the language and making some revisions. Then, lo and behold, this happens.”

He added, “We were basically at an agreement. Nothing was signed yet. It just takes time. They understood it was going to take some time.”

The town is also asking the court to weigh in on whether or not the town has to pay elected union officials for performing services on behalf of the union. It will delay implementation of a three-platoon structure, according to the press release, “while it awaits guidance form the Superior Court and continues negotiations.”

Firefighters Ask State to Investigate Possible Confidentiality Breach

Station One on Main Street.

By Elizabeth F. McNamara

Three East Greenwich firefighters have sent a letter to the state Attorney General’s office and the State Police asking them to investigate what they say is a breach of confidentiality by a town employee or employees. The incident in question took place Saturday, Nov. 18, when firefighters on duty at Station One on Main Street noticed some personal health records lying in plain view on a shelf inside the window in front of the building. 

Firefighters called the police, who documented the incident and contacted Fire Clerk Kristen Henrikson, who unlocked the door and removed the papers. Henrikson’s desk is in the front office with the window. Only Henrikson and Fire Chief Christopher Olsen have a key to the office. The paperwork had been in the window since at least the previous day. Henrikson does not work on the weekends and Olsen works Monday through Thursday, leaving for his home in New Hampshire Thursday evenings. 

The paperwork included information about firefighters Ryan Grady, Edward Matola and Jonathan Szerlag, who first sent a letter to Town Council members, outlining what they said was a violation of their privacy and a the state Confidentiality of Health Care Communications and Information Act. The letter asked for a public apology from the Town Council, Henrikson’s immediate dismissal, and that the town institute and enforce policies to safeguard against further incidents of this type. 

When the town did not respond within 10 days, the firefighters then contacted the Attorney General and the State Police, acknowledging that the violation is a misdemeanor and normally would stay local, but “given the current state of politics in the Town as well as the overwhelming potential for conflict of interest,” they decided to seek help from the state. 

They were referring to tension between town officials and the firefighters. In addition to dismissing Fire Chief Russ McGillivray in November, town officials have gone after what they describe as an overly generous contract (agreed to in 2016 by three of the current Town Councilors) and overtime expenses. It was the firefighters who brought suit against the town and won, with Superior Court Judge Susan McGuirl ruling that Town Manager Gayle Corrigan fired firefighter James Perry illegally and citing the town for three Open Meetings Act violations, rendering Corrigan’s initial appointment to the position of town manager in June null and void.

According to Town Solicitor David D’Agostino, the town can take action or not or can reserve the right to take action in response to a letter of this type. He noted that the police report said there was “no crime involved.” 

The papers were removed and “the issue was mitigated and that was it,” Chief Olsen said Thursday. 

He declined to say how, if at all, the issue had been addressed or if he had asked Henrikson if she had left the papers out when she left on Friday. He questioned whether or not it was even Henrikson who left the paperwork out. 

“How do you know if the clerk left them there?” He said he did not leave the papers there.

The chief, who gave an extensive report to the Town Council Dec. 4 about the fire department’s need for more professionalism, said this was a personnel issue and as such he did not feel comfortable commenting further. 

“It’s been handled and that’s all you need to know,” he said. 

“If the fire chief thinks there’s no need to investigate, from the town’s perspective that means nothing more needs to be done,” said D’Agostino. 

This Was the Town That Made America Famous, Part 1

By Bruce Mastracchio   

Yes, this was the Town that made America famous; the local Fire Department stocked with short-haired Volunteers, and on Saturday night when they showed movies, the lawyer and the youngest teens saw their dreams on the movie screen, BUT something’s burning somewhere. Does anybody care?
– Harry Chapin

It was back in that more innocent time I like to write about. Before accruing Washingtons and Lincolns and Grants became more of an agenda than paying attention to your fellow man.

The local Fire Department was stocked with short-haired volunteers, me and my buds among them. On hearing that song by Harry Chapin, I thought he might have had East Greenwich in mind when he wrote it.

The EG firemen marching down Division street during a parade.

Volunteer activity was heavy in those days and gave that group an elitist feeling. A good feeling. A different feeling. It hasn’t been felt in a long time. Getting paid for doing something doesn’t make something good necessarily.

For whatever the reason, many EG boys joined the EGFD at the age of 15 in the Juniors program. Some joined to help others. To do a good turn. Some joined for the excitement and adventure. Some had a goal of making firefighting an occupation. Maybe a combination of all of those reasons. Back then being an EGFD volunteer meant something.

In the early days the station on Main Street was unmanned. Calls came into the local telephone operator (my mother was one as were two of my aunts). She would then press a button that would activate the siren. The horn came later.

Volunteers would either rush to the station, or call the operator and she would give them the location of the fire. If a firefighter worked for a local business, or, was a Junior fireman going to school, he was allowed to leave to fight the fire under an agreement worked out between the business community, the school and the fire department.

Later on a system was developed that allowed the siren signal to go off followed by a series of blasts on a horn placed on the roof of Station 1 on Main Street, that gave the approximate location of the fire. Every firefighter had a book to refer to. Some had the system memorized. If the first blast was solitary it meant the fire was above Main Street. Two initial blasts meant below Main. Three was for Cowesett. Four was Frenchtown. Five for Potowomut.

For instance, 2-1-2-6 was a fire at the Italian-American Club on Duke Street. 1-2-4-2 was Eldredge School. 3-1-1 was Spencer Avenue. 4-1-1-2 was The Grange in Frenchtown. 5-2-2-1 was Rocky Hill School. On top of that there were special signals such as 2, which was the test blast every day a noon (Sundays at 1 p.m.); 4-4 was fresh water drowning; 5-5 meant a riot; 6-3 was Goddard Park; 7 was an out-of-district drowning.

The young volunteers took pride in their position, especially if it meant they got out of school to go fight a big brush fire. This happened a few times, both during the days of the old East Greenwich Academy and when EG High School was on Cedar Avenue (where Cole Middle School is now). Of course, being a Junior also meant a lot of training under the watchful and critical eyes of the older men, in particular George King and Joe Lawrence. They could be tough on you.

Some of the more memorable fires were the Pig Farm fire, which was lit by a man who murdered a whole family (read about the Dusza-Reynolds case here); the Main Street fire at Odd Fellows Hall; the Efco Manufacturing fire; the Benny’s fire (read about that here); the Bleachery fire; a couple of shanty town fires and plenty of woods fires. Of course, the older guys could go on for hours about their “fights,” but the above mentioned are ones that stick in my mind the most.

Being near Quonset Point, and in the path of leave and liberty weekends for the young sailors and marines stationed there, meant a lot of late night and weekend rescue calls. In those days there were a lot of accidents, some horrific, and as young teenagers we were exposed to blood, gore and death that some people had to go to war to see. Crushed cars, battered and bloody servicemen, even, one time, a headless Navy guy hit by a train – these were fairly routine sights for boys serving as volunteers for the EGFD. One time we even got to assist when Mr. King (who died in 2015 at age 92) delivered a baby. On a couple of other occasions we had to dive under water at Goddard and Sandy Point to recover drowning victims.

Almost every one of these escapades was captured on film and a journey through Charlie Booth’s photo album would be an eye opener to a lot of people. Mr. Booth was the unofficial-official photographer for the EGFD and he was always on hand. To me his photos deserved an award. They were on-the-scene records of fires, accidents, rescues, drownings and the like. No one who has seen them can ever forget his shots of the four North Kingstown football players who were chasing their girlfriends and got hit by a train at the Cowesett crossing (one of the reasons for the bridge you see there today).

It should be mandatory viewing for every prom going teenager. I used to use them when I taught school in California, Massachusetts and Rhode Island to show how a little “fooling around,” and a second’s wrong decision, can lead to death and destruction.

End of Part One. In Part Two, Bruce will talk about the Dunn Fire and Musters and thank the men who made EGFD the best volunteer company in the state.