Elorza bringing back ex-chief as ‘consultant’ for fire department

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The Elorza administration said Friday it has hired former Fire Chief George Farrell to temporarily return to help manage the city’s fire department.

Farrell, who unsuccessfully sought a tax-free accidental-disability pension himself after he retired in 2011, will report directly to Public Safety Commissioner Steven Pare, according to Evan England, a spokesman for the mayor.

“Former Providence Fire Chief George Farrell is widely respected for his capable management skills and years of experience, and will come on board as a consultant to assist in managing fire department operation,” England said. “Mr. Farrell will be an asset to the public safety commissioner’s office and to the city of Providence as we continue to address high cost overruns in the department and ensure the highest level of public safety for our residents and firefighters alike.”

Providence payroll records show Farrell earned $139,000 in his final year on the job. City law allows pension recipients to work 75 full days or 150 half days per calendar year. Pare told WPRI.com he expects Farrell to continue to hold the job into 2016.

Pare said acting Fire Chief Scott Mello will serve as assistant chief of operations and the city will continue to search for a full-time chief. He said Mello “did nothing wrong,” but indicated the “unprecedented increase” injured-on-duty claims led him to hire Farrell.

“This appointment does not change anything Providence firefighters do, which is to provide the highest level of fire and lifesaving services to the citizens of and the visitors to the city of Providence.” Paul Doughty, the union president, said in a statement.

Elorza’s decision to bring back the hard-nosed former chief is likely to further inflame the mayor’s relationship with the city’s firefighters.

In August, the city moved from four fire platoons to three as part of an effort to control overtime costs in the department. The change requires firefighters to go from working an average of 42 hours per week to an average of 56 hours. Under the old system, firefighters were paid time-and-a-half for working more than 42 hours. The new system came with an 8% pay increase, but workers don’t earn callback overtime pay until working above their scheduled 56 hours.

The new schedule, which requires firefighters to work two 10-hour days followed two 14-hour nights followed by two days, is unlike any other fire schedule in the country, according to the city and the union. Doughty has said the schedule is dangerous to the health of his members. Elorza has offered to change the schedule to something more common, but no agreement has been reached.

Public Safety Commissioner Steven Pare has claimed a spike in injured-on-duty claims since the new schedule was implemented is an example of abuse by the firefighters, but the department has not taken any disciplinary action against any members of the union.

A Superior Court judge ruled in September that the city has the right to move from four fire platoons to three, but said the implementation of the new system – namely compensation – should be resolved through the grievance procedures laid out in the city’s existing collective bargaining agreement. An arbitration hearing is scheduled for Dec. 16., but the city is expected to ask the Supreme Court to postpone the meeting while it considers an appeal.

Farrell served in the fire department for more than 30 years before his 2011 retirement, rising the president of the union before being promoted to chief. He made his bones leading the department by attempting to crack down on an abuse of sick time, hiring private investigators to follow certain firefighters.

In 2011, the Providence Retirement Board voted nearly unanimously to overturn an accidental disability pension Farrell was granted because of his leukemia. A Superior Court judge upheld the board’s decision in 2012.

Farrell filed to run as a Democrat for City Council in Ward 5 in the city’s Elmhurst neighborhood in 2014, but later withdrew his candidacy. The seat was won by Democrat Jo-Ann Ryan.

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Dan McGowan ( dmcgowan@wpri.com ) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @danmcgowan

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