Fire captain, injured in Providence blaze, now in battle over promotion

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — A Providence Fire Department captain who was seriously injured in a huge blaze last March has filed a grievance after he was denied a promotion, despite scoring well on the written exam.

But Public Safety Commissioner Steven Paré said it was a policy decision to deny a promotion to a firefighter who is expected to receive a disability pension.

“There is no doubt he is a hero who served admirably for 30 years,” Paré said. “This is a policy issue, whereas he’s not capable because he’s going to be permanently disabled.”

The promotion would not have increased Capt. Joe Fontaine’s monthly pension, but would’ve added about $18,000 to his severance package.

Fontaine was one of 21 firefighters who were injured when a wind-swept fire swallowed an Eaton Street triple-decker and damaged two other homes. The fire left several Providence College students burned out of their apartments.

At one point, Fontaine was in a medically induced coma as he fought cyanide poisoning.

“I’ve been through a lot but nothing like this,” Fontaine said after he was home from the hospital.

Photos: Wind-driven fire on Eaton Street »

Fontaine has since applied for an accidental disability pension, with the 31-year veteran’s case moved to a Retirement Board meeting next month from a meeting that was scheduled for Wednesday.

As his pension case moved forward, he took the battalion chief test, achieving the ninth highest score, according to a number of sources.

That is why Fontaine’s family, attorney and union insist he should’ve been part of the battalion chief promotion ceremony on Friday that pinned nine former captains with the higher rank.

Fontaine chose not to comment on the dispute, but Union President Paul Doughty said there is no doubt Fontaine should’ve been promoted.

“He put in a significant amount personal time and energy in studying for the test. He met the standard,” said Doughty. “And then to be denied the opportunity to be promoted afterwards really begs the question: why did you let him take the test?

Paré said the city cannot stop anyone from taking the test and that he told the union a firefighter about to be out on a disability pension would not be promoted

“So, the union knew prior to the test, but as I said, nothing blocked him,” Paré explained. “Nobody could stop him from taking it, so he chose to take it.”

Doughty blames the promotion denial on the nearly two-year long dispute over Mayor Jorge Elorza’s short-lived plan to cut a fire department platoon.

“This is a deep-seated hatred that the mayor has for the Providence firefighters,” Doughty said. “And he’s vindictive and he’s taking it out on Captain Fontaine.”

Mayor Elorza spokesperson Emily Crowell said the mayor was not involved in the personnel decision.

Paré reemphasized that point.

“Captain Fontaine is a hero. He risked his life and gave this city 30 years of admirable service,” he said. “This is not personal with Captain Fontaine or his family. Again, it’s a policy decision.”

The grievance process could take up to a year.

Send tips to Target 12 Investigator Walt Buteau at wbuteau@wpri.com and follow him on Twitter @wbuteau.