Seeking 80 new firefighters, Providence pleads case for massive federal grant

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – With many Providence firefighters working more than 60 hours per week, city officials have asked the federal government for more than $15 million to hire 80 new firefighters this year.

In a recent application for a federal Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant, Providence’s deputy commissioner of public safety made the case that “additional firefighters will also reduce fatigue, reduce the number of line-of-duty injuries, reduce overtime, increase response time and increase firefighters and citizen safety.”

“Further, overworked and fatigued firefighters make poor decisions, are injured more frequently and place themselves and their colleagues at risk,” deputy commissioner Michael O’Toole wrote in the application dated March 14.

The Elorza administration announced last week it plans to launch another fire academy, but declined to offer any details on the size of the class or when recruitment efforts will begin.  A spokesman for the mayor declined to comment for this report.

But the grant application paints the clearest picture yet of how depleted the fire department has become since Elorza took office, dropping from 460 firefighters in 2014 to 357 as of March. If the city wins the grant, it projects the number would rise to 435 firefighters.

The application states that 34 firefighters face mandatory retirement over the next five years because a city ordinance requires them to retire at the age of 60 and 148 firefighters are currently eligible to retire.

As the numbers have dwindled, the injuries have increased, according to the application. The city had 148 firefighters injured on duty in 2015, compared with 115 injured in 2014 and 119 in 2013. Public Safety Commission Steven Pare has previously suggested the spike in injuries in 2015 wasn’t “about working too many hours,” but rather a response to the administration’s decision to restructure the department.

The city makes a different case in its grant application.

“Without these new firefighters and funding, the [Providence Fire Department] will continue a decline in operational safety,” O’Toole wrote. “Members are working 60 to 80 hours each week. In addition to being fatigued, members are performing their duties below nationally recognized engine company and ladder standards.”

City officials also issue a stark warning about Providence’s finances in the grant application, even alluding to the possibility of municipal bankruptcy.

“Mayor Jorge Elorza is struggling with a pension fund funded at a dismal 31% coupled with a projected budget deficit ranging from $15 to $20 million,” they wrote. “With such a poor financial outlook, the City cannot afford to operate in a structural deficit mode because receivership or bankruptcy will be in its future. In all likelihood, the Mayor will have to raise taxes, institute a spending and hiring freeze, and look to further reduce City Department budgets.”

Pare declined to comment on the SAFER grant, but confirmed the application was filed. He said the city plans to hold a press conference in the coming weeks.

The application makes little mention of a bitter dispute between the administration and its firefighters over Elorza’s decision last August to move the department from four platoons to three.

The change, which required firefighters to go from working an average of 42 hours per week across four platoons to an average of 56 hours on three platoons, was designed to reduce spending on callback overtime, but retirements, resignations and injuries have led to no savings in the current fiscal year.

The two sides have been locked in a months-long legal battle that will likely be resolved by the Rhode Island Supreme Court if they can’t reach a settlement. The union and the city were ordered to arbitration by a Superior Court judge in order to determine how much firefighters should be paid for the 14-hour increase to their average work week.

“This [grant application] clearly illustrates that Mayor Elorza’s shift change has been an unmitigated disaster,” Paul Doughty, president of Local 799 of the International Association of Firefighters, told WPRI.com. “They are now using the disaster to justify more staffing from the federal government.”

Doughty and his union have long argued the city could reduce its spending on callback overtime by hiring more firefighters, but the administration had argued that spending more on salaries and healthcare would not lead to the $5 million in annual savings it hopes to achieve.

Doughty’s comments came a day after two large fires destroyed several homes in different parts of the city. A fire on Eaton Street near Providence College sent 21 firefighters to the hospital Thursday; two remained in the hospital Friday. No civilians were injured in either fire.

There is no guarantee Providence will be awarded the SAFER grant.

The city was not approved for a significantly smaller request last year. In fact, of the 250 SAFER grants awarded last year, only Philadelphia ($22.9 million) and Atlantic City, New Jersey ($21.5 million) received more than the $15 million the city is seeking. Boston received $12.8 million.

If approved, Providence would receive $7.28 million for personnel and benefits during the first year of the grant and $7.73 million during the second year. The city would be required to cover any additional costs associated with the new academy.

The city should know whether it is approved for the grant by the end of the summer.

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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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