Providence still in search of next fire chief

From left to right, Providence Police Chief Hugh Clements, Public Safety Commissioner Steven Pare and former Asst. Fire Chief Scott Mello. (Photo by Dan McGowan/WPRI 12)
From left to right, Providence Police Chief Hugh Clements, Public Safety Commissioner Steven Pare and former Asst. Fire Chief Scott Mello. (Photo by Dan McGowan/WPRI 12)

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Providence Public Safety Commissioner Steven Pare said Thursday the ongoing dispute between the Elorza administration and the city’s firefighters’ union has made the search for a new fire chief difficult, but he is confident a tentative agreement on a new contract will make the department “a better place for people to want to come to work.”

Appearing in front of the City Council Finance Committee, Pare acknowledged that a prospect for the chief’s position fell through within the last month because the city and the candidate couldn’t come to terms “on salary and other conditions.” He said the city is currently looking at two other candidates for the job.

“There are people that want to come, but we haven’t found the right person with that skillset to lead us to the next level,” Pare told the committee.

Pare praised the city’s rank-and-file firefighters, but said “we are weak” when it comes to administrative responsibilities. He told the committee the department has had no internal candidates for any of its vacant management-level jobs, including fire chief.

Pare said the city is still working with a national headhunting firm as it searches for a permanent chief, a post that has been vacant since Clarence Cunha retired last year. He said the firm sent the city 30 candidates and Pare chose between six and eight to interview.

But Pare also faced harsh criticism from committee Chairman John Igliozzi, who said the administration created many of the problems the department is currently facing when it overhauled the staffing structure from four platoons to three in August 2015.

Earlier this month, the administration and the union announced they had reached a tentative agreement to move back to a four-platoon in exchange for a reduction in minimum manning from 94 firefighters per shift to 88. The administration has said the proposed five-year deal will save the city $15 million, although it’s unclear exactly how those savings will be realized.

“You started a fire, you poured kerosene on the fire, and now you’re looking to be patted on the back for putting it out,” Igliozzi told Pare. Igliozzi has said he believes changes to the pension system should be included in the agreement.

Pare said the fire department has lost 105 firefighters since Elorza took office in 2015 and now has 340 firefighters. Of that group, 37 members are currently injured on duty and 11 are working on light duty, he said.

The department has already surpassed the $2 million it budgeted for callback and overtime costs for the fiscal year that started July 1, but city Finance Director Larry Mancini told the committee he projects the department will not end up over budget for the year because of savings on other line items.

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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