Report: Massive fires show need for more command staff, firefighters in Providence

Photo: Alejandro Grullon via ReportIt!

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Senior members of the Providence Fire Department have issued a report recommending the city move back to a four-platoon system and increase staffing, but Public Safety Commission Steven Pare is accusing the fire union of playing politics.

The report, prepared by Battalion Chief Kenneth Rainone, acting Battalion Chief Stephen Capricotta and acting Battalion Chief Kevin Jutras, focuses on two large fires – one on Eaton Street and the other on Laurel Hill Avenue – on March 31 that left 26 firefighters injured, some with cyanide poisoning.

The three veteran firefighters found the Eaton Street fire “provides lessons on the need to ensure adequate tracking, rotation, rest, and rehabilitation of fatigued firefighters” and suggested the city needs to continue to train workers on the dangers of cyanide poisoning.

The recommendations outlined in the report focus largely on staffing, suggesting the depleted fire department needs to hire more members of the command staff as well as increase the total number of firefighters in the city.

“The review of the events of the Eaton Street fire, highlight the Providence Fire Department’s inability to fill [incident command system] command staff, general staff and intermediate command-level positions with chief officers who have fire ground command experience,” the report states.

Photo: Alejandro Grullon via ReportIt!
PHOTOS: Eaton Street Fire (Photo Courtesy: Alejandro Grullon via ReportIt!)

The report also recommends returning to the department’s four-platoon system, which required firefighters to work an average of 42 hours per week. The Elorza administration moved to a three-platoon system that added 14 hours to average work week last year.

The overhaul was designed to reduce spending on callback overtime, but retirements, resignations, and injuries have led to no savings in the current fiscal year. The number of firefighters in the city has dropped from 460 when Mayor Jorge Elorza took office in 2015 to 345.

Paul Doughty, president of Local 799 of the International Association of Firefighters, said the report filed by the three firefighters is rare, typically occurring one or two times per year. He said many of the recommendations offered – with the exception of the platoon changes – have been made for several years.

“It’s clear the lack of command staff was defined as a problem,” Doughty said.

Doughty’s comments came during the same week that asst. Fire Chief Scott Mello announced plans to retire. The union president said Mello’s departure will leave “no one to handle the day-to-day operations,” in the department.

Public Safety Commissioner Steven Pare quickly dismissed the report, calling it an “incomplete report drafted by [union] members to the media in an attempt to politicize the injuries from March 31.”

“This is in no way a comprehensive report,” Pare said. “My focus is to determine how and why firefighters were injured on March 31 in order to prevent injuries of firefighters in the future. The leaked draft does not address those critical questions.”

The city and the union are now locked in a legal dispute over how much firefighters should be paid for the extra 14 hours they are required to work each week. A Rhode Island Superior Court judge ordered them to arbitration in September, but the city appealed the decision to the state Supreme Court. Elorza has repeatedly said he is hopeful a settlement can be reached.

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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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