After ‘big exodus,’ Providence hires 83 firefighters

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Providence has seen more than 50 firefighters retire in a single year just three times since 1979.

The first time was 1991, when a window was closing on a generous benefit for public safety workers retiring from the city. The other two occasions came after Mayor Jorge Elorza announced plans to restructure the fire department in 2015.

In an attempt to restore the department’s workforce following the spike in retirements, city officials welcomed 83 new firefighters to the job Monday following a six-month training period. It is believed to be the largest academy in city history.

“When we had that big exodus of firefighters retiring, it put a real big strain on the existing firefighters, which is why this is such a relief,” Public Safety Commissioner Steven Pare told Eyewitness News after a graduation ceremony at the Rhode Island Convention Center.

The new hires bring the fire department from an all-time low of 312 workers up to 395, but Pare acknowledged another class of between 50 and 70 employees will begin training before the current fiscal year ends June 30.

Pare maintains the new firefighters’ lower salaries will save the city millions of dollars, but the department changes that he and Elorza abandoned after only 17 months were costly.

On Aug. 2, 2015, the city restructured the department from four platoons to three, a change that required firefighters to go from working an average of 42 hours per week to an average of 56 hours. Elorza promised the city would eventually save $5 million a year from the changes, largely from a reduction in overtime costs.

But the department saw 103 firefighters retire between June 2015 and December 2016 as well as dozens of others go out on short-term leave with injuries. Because every shift required at least 94 firefighters to be on duty – a contractual provision known as minimum manning – overtime spending exploded from $7.3 million in the 2015 fiscal year to $12.4 million in 2016, according to figures provided by the internal auditor’s office.

Elorza signed a new, five-year contract with the firefighters in January, moving the department back to four platoons in exchange for reducing the minimum number of firefighters on each shift to 88. But with new firefighters still in training, the city has continued to pay overtime to ensure it has 88 workers per shift.

“The retirements are absolutely, directly attributable to the shift change,” Paul Doughty, the president of the union, told Eyewitness News.

City officials acknowledge the changes haven’t generated any savings, but they maintain overall spending in the fire department has not been a budget-buster for the city. A review of city financial records shows Providence went over budget in its fire department by $1.7 million during the 2016 fiscal year and $1.2 million in 2017.

Providence has finished the last two fiscal years with overall surpluses in excess of $10 million, in part because city officials delayed police and fire academies for more than a year. The new fire graduates and the next class are funded through a $15-million federal grant.

The city has also agreed to pay firefighters and a group of recent retirees $5.9 million to settle multiple legal disputes related to overtime payments, the bulk of which are directly related to the shift change in 2015.

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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