By TRACEY O’NEILL
Special to the Standard
NORTH KINGSTOWN – “They wouldn’t want this for their families,” Beth Cardarelli said. “I wonder if it can get any worse and it scares me.”
Beth, whose husband is Lieutenant Mark Cardarelli, a North Kingstown firefighter, recently arrived at the station with her children Autumn, 2, and Grayson, five months, in tow. The Cardarellis say they are still trying to make sense of their lives amidst a boatload of controversy and continuous turmoil imposed upon them by the Town of North Kingstown’s implementation of a 56-hour work week, a move that has been met with much debate from both sides and a number of pending legal challenges.
Several families were in attendance, all coming together to tell their stories and spread the word that the Town’s decision has far-reaching ramifications, extending into their homes and their livelihoods. Effecting not only the men and woman who make up the NKFFA, the 56 hour shift, extended every third week to 72 hours, coupled with a reduced workforce has left those at home scrambling to keep up with the chaos.
“There is no stability,” says Heather Williams. “My son didn’t want to come today, not because he didn’t want to tell his story. He didn’t want his Dad to feel bad, to hear how hard it is on us at home.”
Williams’ son, Nicholas, 7, brought his school journal to show me. “My Dad is finally at home,” it begins. “I miss him at work. I will play with him more. We will play.”
Nick’s own words, a little boy’s story, page after page spoke of his Dad’s absence and his need to have his Dad at home.
Nick’s older sister, Alexandra, 15, came too. She sat with her mom and the wives as the narrative unfolded. Some children played in the anti-room and some wandered in and out with dad or a sibling. They were comfortable with the squelching, surroundings and each other. They were with family.
Alexandra listened as her mother detailed the crazed happenstance that now made up their daily lives. “We never know anymore,” explained Williams. “He doesn’t come home. They don’t come home.”
The picture painted in still screens, snapshots and snippets of home and daily routines, portrayed an overload of autopilot. Never planning beyond the immediate future, lain out in mornings, afternoons and nights, those at home are tasked with maintaining the entire routine.
Williams continued, “When my husband comes home, they are stuck like glue to him. They are starving for his attention.” Motioning to Nick, Williams teared up, apologizing for becoming emotional. Tissues distributed, the atmosphere in the room was tense. Despite the stress and obvious collective exhaustion surrounding the group, everyone waited their turn, offering support and encouragement through mutual understanding.
Alexandra, who had been quiet was stirring in her seat. When asked if there was a lot of whispering going on at home, she too, was emotional. She managed to nod yes. Alexandra felt bad that her parents were trying to shelter her from the stress. She felt bad that her little brother was missing her Dad so much and she felt bad enough to stay home in the event her father came home unexpectedly. Alexandra didn’t go to her friends’ house much anymore, because she didn’t know when Dad would come home. She wasn’t going anywhere when he actually came home from work.
The Williams and other families do not feel like they have functional home lives anymore. Added to the 56 hour work week, increased ordered shifts and breakdown of command and coverage in the firehouses, the firefighters are feeling stress at home and at work. Everyone is trying to protect everyone else. Children, parents, husbands and wives all trying to shelter each other from the stress dictated by the Town they serve. The frustration and disappointment with the bearing on their lives was palpable.
“When I come home I feel like a stranger,” says Lieutenant Cardarelli, joining his family at the table. “My daughter wants Mom to do everything because I’m not there. I’m missing out on my son.”
Cardarelli is one of two family members on the department. His brother is also a North Kingstown firefighter. Family gatherings such as his son’s christening have become family stress factors.
“I have 10 years in,” he continued. “I don’t want to be the absent dad.”
Tammy Sironen came with her son Luke, 7. She and her husband Steven live in town with their children. Tammy is lucky to have family support close by. Like all of the moms and wives in the room, she works for a living, too.
“Even though I have help from my mother who’s across the street, it is hard having to adopt this hands-off parenting,” she says. “There’s no discipline as we knew it before. Everyone feels bad and my husband doesn’t want to discipline the kids when he’s finally home.”
The wives are feeling pressure at work. “You have to have an on-call babysitter to function,” says Beth. “It’s impossible - an unsustainable situation.”
The situation at the firehouses has not improved, says Ray Furtado, NKFFA President. Shift ordering has steadily increased and firehouses are seeing engines and rescues shut down due to lack of available personnel.
Court dates set for September leave firefighters and families with no immediate resolution.