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Fire Academy faculty alarmed by insurance news

February 25, 2012

Special to the Standard

EXETER – Instructors working under the auspices of the State Fire Academy have been training responders for more than a year without liability insurance – a situation one teacher learned of when he was turned away from Electric Boat in late 2010 because he had no proof of coverage.
“Nobody was ever told,” says one of the teachers, speaking on condition of anonymity, but apparently representing a number of other worried and angry faculty members.
Instructors have come forward with this and other complaints in response to a Standard-Times story published Feb. 9.
They plan to make a statement at two scheduled orientation sessions, on March 10 and 24 for which attendance is mandatory. A Providence firefighter sent a mass e-mail telling faculty members that the question of liability “will be broached.”
Members of the instructors’ association were asked to appear in a show of strength. It is expected they will unilaterally refuse to teach until they are properly insured.
“We’ll try to air it out,” says the spokesman, who adds, “I’m not teaching. If somebody is injured during one of my classes, I can’t pay.”
If the matter can’t be resolved, he predicts new teachers will be brought in who are “political guys” required to follow orders.
The problem boils down to the old, familiar culprit: money management.
“We’ve had issues with training and budgets,” he notes.
Construction of the academy, which has yet to open after an A-list ribbon-cutting last July, was the start of the trouble. “There were delays,” says the fire instructor.
According to a State House source, after $6.4 million was spent of a $55 million bond issue passed in 2012 – it was to cover the cost of building phase one of the fire training complex and the new state police
headquarters – the academy is now $2.8 million over the original bond request.
That amount is the estimated cost to construct stage two at the Exeter site which was to have opened later this summer but has been delayed.
Removing instructors from state liability insurance appears to have been an austerity measure designed to trim expenses from the budget.
Since then, says the source, fire academy faculty members have essentially become the stepchildren of the state’s responder-training programs.
“The state police are running it now. Everybody's at their beck and call.”
Indeed, the fire marshal himself answers to State Police Superintendent Col. Steven G. O’Donnell.
The fire instructor maintains the academy “isn't funded like it should be.” Massachusetts and Connecticut, he notes, take a minuscule amount from each tax dollar to run fire training programs.
According to the instructor, things are so bad in Rhode Island, the academy has had to “beg and borrow” things including a trailer to haul equipment, extrication equipment and even an old rescue truck that the City of Cranston planned to junk.
In a recent interview, Fire Marshal John Chartier angrily denied there are any problems at the fire academy, insisted that funding is adequate and denounced critics as uninformed.
Those inside the operation, however, seem to have a great deal of information.
For instance, the faculty member explains that five years ago, instructors were considered state employees and, after filling out forms, were under the state’s umbrella coverage.
“They knew if one of us did something and hurt someone the liability would fall on them.
“The state dropped us to make us [independent] vendors. We assumed that the paperwork we were filling out would protect us under their insurance. It turned out there’s no liability insurance for any of the instructors.”
He learned of his unprotected status by accident.
“We bid on teaching at Electric Boat,” he says. “We do it on a bi-annual basis. I arrived on a Friday morning to teach and was asked for [proof of] liability insurance. I called the director for [documentation] for three instructors and equipment I was taking onto the property.
“He said, ‘We don’t have that. You’re not covered. Get your own.’”
Some of the intensive, highly dangerous training involves hanging 150 feet in the air during confined-space rescue and working in live trenches.
Now, he says, “EB won’t let us on the property because we have no liability. This is twice-a-year-training and we can’t bid on it.” Historically, he adds, the defense contractor has paid the instructors and also donated equipment to the program.
“It’s hardware that’s vital.”
The instructor says he and others have had “a dark indication that this [liability situation] has been known for over a year.” Now the reality is looming over them as private classes they would normally teach are falling by the wayside.
In the meantime, a waiver has been prepared that was intended to “pacify” the academy’s faculty, he notes. “It’s what the state police thought was going to hold up in court. It won’t. It’s a placebo, fuller of holes than Swiss cheese.”
The fire marshal's official website includes a form that can be downloaded by firefighters wishing to take classes at the academy. Essentially, it's a promise not to sue the state if you're injured during training; if you die, your family can't sue either.
It's unlikely the document would prevent a lawsuit.
Meanwhile, State Sen. Dennis Algiere (R-Westerly), himself a graduate of the state fire-training program, is looking into the issue.
“I went to a meeting of a group of fire departments in the Washington County area,” he recalls. “Each year they have a legislative get-together. They mentioned they’re instructors and aren’t clear on their liability status.”
Earlier, Algiere contacted the State Department of Administration which sent him a letter confirming the situation: “They don’t have coverage as instructors.”
He appears shocked that the uninsured status quo continues. Because the equipment is “inherently dangerous,” he's been making calls to officials in the Department of Public Safety to try and resolve the matter.
“My understanding is they're trying to address the issue,” he says. “I'm sure they'll come up with something.”
The spokesman for the instructors is especially disgusted because the school isn't delivering after a lot of work went into reconfiguring state courses to raise the training level to board-certified status.
“It’s a very prestigious thing to have but we didn’t have the equipment to teach the classes properly. We can’t run them without the equipment and we don’t have the people to teach the classes now.”
Another highly-placed instructor who is considered a national expert in his field says, “It’s kind of a bizarre situation. There's something crazy going on. Nothing has been held down there as far as classes go and we can’t get a straight answer from anybody.”
The veteran firefighter adds, “I have to jump through hoops to get grants [needed to teach his classes] that are well out of date.”
He says he will fully support the other instructors if they refuse to teach. He adds that, so far, the highly-touted fire academy is useless when compared with what the town of South Kingstown already offers.
“They’ve got a fantastic facility. Even Providence comes down to use it. Now you get into a position where they build this one and it's not being even being utilized.”

Martha Smith is an award-winning journalist and author. Retired, she is an independent contractor for SRIN.

Southern Rhode Island Newspapers
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