By TRACEY O’NEILL
Special to the Standard
NORTH KINGSTOWN– Local firefighters continue to argue that firehouse conditions across the district are deteriorating because of the 56-hour shift change implemented by the Town of North Kingstown back in March.
“The 56-hour work week doesn’t work,” says North Kingstown Firefighters Association President, Raymond Furtado. “The conditions that the firefighters are facing under this plan are causing severe emotional and physical ramifications.”
Speaking in a telephone interview from Philadelphia, where he is attending the International Association of Firefighters 51st convention, Furtado was clear that firefighter personnel and community safety are paramount concerns with the department operating at less than peak capacity.
President of the NKFFA since 2008, Furtado has been a North Kingstown firefighter for almost 14 years. “The situation isn’t sustainable. The stress level within the firehouses and the department is affected exponentially with the stress being felt at home.”
The 56-hour shift is designed to work in 24-hour segments, with a 7 a.m. to 7 a.m. shift. The one day on, two day off schedule results in a firefighter logging an average of 56 hours per week over the course of a year. According to the union, North Kingstown firefighters are logging more than the hours required and are not seeing any relief from shift coverage due to lack of available personnel. A key concern for the department is the lack of safeguards in place to limit the number of hours one individual can work.
“We are down to less than 60 line firefighters,” explained Furtado. “There simply aren’t enough bodies to accommodate the hours. The firefighters are being ordered to stay. They aren’t working 24 hours. They are working 36, 48 and sometimes 72-hour shifts. The long hours and lack of sleep are a volatile situation.”
Firefighters who are ordered to stay say they are not only feeling the effects at work, but are experiencing serious issues at home. “There is no relief,” noted Captain Greg Pariseault. “The burn out factor is starting to take effect. There are a significant amount of people being ordered to stay to fill a spot.”
“The number of calls we have to respond to has not changed under the current system,” Chief Fenwick Gardiner said in a phone interview on Wednesday. “We have a temporary staffing situation with personnel count. We do have times that people have to be ordered.”
Management of hours for the firefighters includes consideration for those times that firefighters receive orders to stay per the Chief. “In the rare occasion where a firefighter has worked 48 hours, we work to make sure he has the necessary rest.
The lack of limitations is taken into consideration with a maximum target of 48 hours in place per the Chief. “We are taking the number of hours worked into consideration when staffing requires ordering. We look towards replacing the individual.”
There is also volatility within the firehouse and the cohesive nature of the team is being burdened by the lack of personnel. Firefighters are shifting from one house to another and from one piece of [equipment] to another. “There is a breakdown in the chain of command, the formality of the para-military structure,” cautioned Pariseault.
At home, family members are unsure when their firefighters will return and are finding it difficult to function in a normal fashion. “My wife is losing 4-8 hours a week in pay and our childcare costs have risen considerably. We go two days at a time without seeing our families. That sometimes extends to 4-5 days,” Pariseault added. “My wife is now a single parent for a significant portion of the week.”
Michael Embury, Town Manager, is supportive of the change in structure. Involved in a court battle with the firefighter’s association, the town has not deviated from its message that the shift change will stay in effect.
“The 24-hour shift is used safely across 90 percent of the country” said Embury on Tuesday. “I disagree with the contention that it doesn’t work.”
Elizabeth Dolan, Town Council President, was also remiss to address the issue of safety concerns for the firefighters and the town residents. “I don’t have any first-hand knowledge of the concerns expressed by Mr. Furtado,” said Dolan. Speaking instead as to the continued legal wrangling over management’s right to change the shift and wage structure, Dolan was clear. “We feel strongly that our interpretation of the judge’s ruling is correct. What we understand is that this shift structure is a workable thing.”
At odds on collective bargaining, arbitration and the judge’s decision, one thing was clear to the President of the NKFFA.
“The only ones taking care of the firefighters right now, are the firefighters,” he said.
Tracey O’Neill is a reporter experienced in the South County area and is an independent contractor with SRI Newspapers.