TIVERTON — By unanimous vote in executive session Monday night, Tiverton’s Town Council has launched what it is calling “an investigation into issues in the Fire Department.”
After the closed-door vote, the council made the announcement of its action public,and said it had hired Providence lawyer Marc DeSisto to lead the investigation.
The only hint of the action in advance of the meeting was a cryptic executive session agenda item referring to “potential litigation” and an “investigation.”
Town Administrator Matt Wojcik said Thursday that the investigation concerned “personnel matters,” and was not an inquiry into matters considered to be criminal in nature.
He said the investigation is based on “complaints,” but he did not disclose the nature of the complaints or the identity of the complainants.
“If no new information comes forward,” he said, “the investigation will be based on what’s already been submitted.” It’s a “department-wide review,” he said.
Asked to comment about the investigation, Fire Chief Robert Lloyd said, “I am not at liberty to say, because it’s an ongoing investigation, and I would direct you to the town administrator or the town solicitor.”
Alluding to what Town Council President Ed Roderick and Town Solicitor Andrew Teitz had reportedly said about how long the investigation would take, Mr. Wojcik said he did not believe the investigation would take very long.
Mr. DeSisto, 58, has in the past been retained by the Interlocal Trust, the Town’s insurance carrier. It is not known if the complaints are the “potential litigation” referred to in the council agenda, or if they are being defended by the Trust.
Mr. DeSisto will be paid by the town at the rate of up to $175 per hour,
Asked about the investigation, Mr. DeSisto said, “I’m not making any statement.”
Background of resignations
The fire department has been plagued over the last several years with departures by trained firefighters, who have left to take work elsewhere, and been faced with the need to fill the vacancies by advertising and recruiting candidates whose applications have had to be processed by the town personnel board.
The entire process has the potential for fostering complaints.
In addition, the departures, and the vacancies they create, along with the attendant reshuffling of personnel and shifts, has led to the generation of overtime work performed by the staff who remain.
At its meeting Monday night — under financial business (and prior to the executive session) — the town council unanimously approved the transfer of $80,000 from the department’s salary account to its overtime account.
The funds transferred were unpaid salaries that had accrued after the departure of firefighters who left to take jobs elsewhere.
In comments to the council Monday night, ChiefLloyd said he anticipated having to return to the council for authorization later this spring to transfer additional funds into the overtime account.
Chief Lloyd, in a January interview about departmental staffing, said, “the problem is in keeping people who can get better paying jobs elsewhere. We are the lowest paid department in the state.”
Chief Lloyd joined the department in January, 2005, and last year was paid $77,327 in 2013, according to a statewide salary survey of municipal officials. He is the third lowest paid fire chief among his counterparts in 11 comparable communities in the East Bay and the state.
In a memo to Interim Town Administrator Nancy Mello last November 21, presumably shared with the Town Council, Chief Lloyd predicted the need to utilize overtime. “The lack of a full staff of employees at this time is causing this department to use overtime moneys to cover vacant shifts,” he wrote.
Since May of 2012, nine employees have left to go elsewhere, Chief Lloyd said in January, and since January, 2010, the number rises to 15.
In a little over a year — between May 2012 and July 2013 — Tiverton firefighters left town to take jobs in Fall River, Warwick (2), Providence (2) Pawtucket, East Providence, and Newport.
Chief Lloyd said he interviewed those who left, to learn their reasons for leaving. Those reasons are: higher pay, potential for career advancement, and the fact that elsewhere they might be “less likely to be ordered to work on days off.”
During the January interview with Chief Lloyd, a 30-year old firefighter, in the station at the time, spoke about a decision he is considering, to leave the Tiverton department.
He did not wish to be identified, but said he was married with one small child. He’s been in Tiverton a little under six years, he said.
He has an associate’s degree in fire sciences, and is a trained firefighter/paramedic, possessing the highest level of EMT training.
He said he was considering leaving to go to Warwick, where he will be starting at $45,708 per year, with the opportunity to increase his pay over three years to about $63,000.
Right now the highest amount he could ever earn if he stayed in Tiverton, he said, would be $47,826, a little over $15,000 per year less than if he took the job in Warwick.
It’s not just salary, he said. “There’s a lot more opportunity for advancement through the rank structure there,” he said of his opportunity in Warwick.
He also said that in Warwick he would be assigned to a truck and be allowed to remain with it, something he cannot do in Tiverton due to the need to be rotated between three different fire stations depending upon slots that need to be filled.
What he likes about Tiverton, he said, “was obviously the opportunity Chief Lloyd has afforded me. And a great group of guys.”
“We’ve worked hard to build a reputation for our department, which has attracted people to come here,” Chief Lloyd said. “And we’ve been successful, because the guys who come here are very good, and they end up being recruited by other departments.”
The problem is, he said, “we’re just not competitive in terms of career advancement and compensation.”
A number of external factors and standards shape personnel decisions in the fire department, the training and skills firefighters are required to have, their compensation, and the operations of the department.
The role of the modern fire department has changed over the years. Fire fighters don’t just put out fires; in fact they do that about only a third of the time.
“We are a critical care facility,” said Chief Lloyd about his department. It’s part of the health care system; an emergency room on wheels.
Of the 2,929 calls the Tiverton Fire Department responded to in 2013, Chief Lloyd said, 63% were medical in nature. The remainder of the calls (37%) were for fires, hazardous materials issues, deer calls, accidents, and so forth, he said.
In other words, department personnel were involved as first-responders in the early medical treatment of an estimated 1,845 Tiverton citizens last year, with an accompanying standard of care they must adhere to in performing that function.
How the department responds to a call, Chief Lloyd said, “is dependent upon the information we get from the caller,” something that is not always clear in the confusion of an emergency. Typically, the department responds with both fire and rescue trucks until it’s clear from on-the-scene observation what the need is.
The department, when fully staffed, he said, has 32 people working in it, spread over four shifts (usually 7 or 8 to a shift), and distributed over three fire stations.
The department is not fully staffed, however, and there are always employees out sick, or on vacation or on other leave, or sometimes injured.
The National Fire Protection Association and the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) also have set safety standards for fire fighters.
For example, said Chief Lloyd, there’s a national standard that says for every two firefighters you send into a burning structure, you need two outside — “the two in, two out,” standard.
Then there’s the Insurance Services Organization (ISO) which sets what it calls “ISO ratings” for every community, or part of a community, in the country, which in turn are used to set the costs for fire insurance that homeowners homeowners pay.
The ISO ratings — which range from 1 to 10 — “measure a community’s ability to suppress fire,” said Chief Lloyd.
The factors that go into determining an ISO rating are complex, but include proximity to a fire station, to a source of water, staffing and vehicle capabilities, and so forth.
The department also conducts fire safety inspections of new and existing buildings (a fire marshal role), and operates a marine rescue boat when called upon.