A couple of years ago a man walked into the lobby of Providence’s Public “Safety” Complex with a gun in his pocket. This came at a time when the nation was at “Code Orange” – an elevated state of security. Did I hear someone say how could this possibly happen? I’m glad you asked, because I can answer that question with one word.
Also, a while back there was a firetrap of an old building with over 300 people jammed into a space probably more suited for half that number. This club was operating with the express knowledge of the town officials of West Warwick. At the time this was taking place, there were a ‘total’ of 11 firefighters protecting the entire town – and no paid Firefighter Detail working at the club. How could the town officials allow this to happen?
Recently there was a major fire station in the Garden City section of Cranston that the city was planning to shut down. This was in spite of the fact that the nearest fire stations to this site were over a mile away in either direction. This was also in spite of the fact that this is perhaps the most densely populated area in Cranston, especially during shopping hours. How could any mayor propose such a thing?
Recently the City of Providence has gone through a renaissance. We heard this from the former mayor – we’ve heard this from the present mayor. We’ve added numerous new buildings that attract thousands of additional people to the city each and every day. The Convention Center, the Providence Place Mall, the Westin Hotel, and the Marriott Courtyard, to name a few. PC, Brown University, Johnson & Wales, and RISD all have new additions that continue to draw more people into this city on a daily basis. Not to mention the expansion at Rhode Island Hospital – or the new construction at Waterplace Park and the old Masonic Temple – or the addition of a large upscale housing development behind Providence Place Mall. Did I mention Water Fire?
With all these new developments and the added influx of people this brings to our capitol city, surely the police and fire departments have been staffed with more people and apparatus to maintain the same level of protection each citizen and visitor in Providence received ten years ago. No? How can that be? The mayor is downsizing these critical public safety departments, you say. No way, that can’t be. Really? Why?
Unfortunately, for Mayor David Cicilline of Providence, Town Manager Wolfgang Bauer of West Warwick, and former Mayor Steven Laffey of Cranston, money is the only issue. You see, holding the line on taxes translates into taxpayer loyalty – and votes. This may be the attitude I expect from my accountant, but it’s not the view I expect from the person responsible for my protection. These men, unfortunately for all of us, fill both roles for their constituents.
Each of these men will tell you that their actions, in the incidents mentioned above, never compromised the safety of the public. To each of them, I say “hogwash”! It seems incredulous to me that politicians can continue to make statements that they know are untrue, especially when it comes to public safety – and not be held accountable.
In the incident at the Providence Public Safety Complex it was reported that there was a metal detector packed away somewhere in the building – but no one was exactly sure of its location. The fact is that there had been two metal detectors (still in the cartons at the time of this incident) since the building was opened. Setting up the detectors, however, would require that the city would have to pay an employee to monitor the entrance at all times. The solution? Leave the detectors in the boxes; of course!
In the case of The Station fire, the issue is crystal clear. Many more people died that night than would have if the Town of West Warwick had simply manned their fire apparatus with the NFPA’s (National Fire Protection Agency) suggested minimum standard – 4 firefighters per truck. In West Warwick they (still) man their trucks with 1 or 2 men on each piece of apparatus. Mr. Bauer, the former Town Manager, stated after the fire that additional manpower on the first arriving fire trucks that night wouldn’t have changed the tragic outcome. He further stated that the NFPA standard for staffing on fire apparatus was ridiculous. He bases his statement on a thorough knowledge of the duties and job responsibilities of firefighters by riding the trucks for how many years? Did you say, none? How can he possibly know the business of firefighting better than the NFPA? Oh, he’s a politician – I understand now.
He had to know that these statements were false. He had to know that he was lying to the public on this issue. He also felt, I’m sure, that it was his responsibility to the citizens of West Warwick to protect the town from being held negligent in the protection it provided that night – indeed, every night. That could lead to litigation against the town – and possibly against him personally. This was not the first time in recent memory that lives were lost to fire in this town, where staffing of their fire department was questioned as a contributing factor to the tragic outcome. In 1995, five people perished in a house fire on Highland Street in that town. The issue of staffing was thought, by some, to be a factor in not being able to reach those victims in time. The issue was swept under the carpet by town officials; they maintained their fire apparatus were adequately staffed.
In the case of The Station fire, most of the victims were trapped in the front doorway and the front alcove just behind the doorway. With only 3 firefighters arriving in those first critical minutes, they could do nothing more than the civilians on the scene had already done – try, unsuccessfully, to pull the victims free. The victims were packed together too tightly to be readily removed. If each of the first two fire trucks to arrive had 4 men aboard, there would have been 8 fully equipped firefighters available to rip down the door frame. Once the door frame was out of the way, all 8 of the men could have pulled free the scores of victims trapped there. Many of these victims would have probably survived if they were pulled out quickly enough. Time is always the firefighter’s enemy during the initial stages of an emergency.
In Cranston, the mayor was determined to shut down the Garden City Fire Station despite what it would have done to increase response times for emergency vehicles in his city. The only thing that kept him from succeeding was the terms of the contract between the city and the firefighter’s union. This mayor tried the same tactics against the city’s crossing guards, who were also covered under a union contract. He tried to fire them, in breach of their contract. He knew that there was no legal way for him to succeed, but he challenged them anyway. His contention was that the children didn’t need crossing guards to stay safe – all they needed were “lime green” crosswalks. Lime green crosswalks? Was he kidding? Apparently not, because he had them painted on the city’s streets. The proper way for him to handle that situation would have been to wait until the contract expired. He then could have decided not to renew the pact unless major concessions were made on the union’s part. As usual, this mayor tried to get his way – no matter what the cost in unnecessary legal fees paid by the taxpayers – right away.
In Providence, despite the tremendous growth this city has seen in the past 10 years, there are the same (or less) number of public safety personnel trying to do the job. The out-of-town response to fire department calls has grown to the point of being ridiculous. Just ask Providence’s neighboring cities and towns. There has been a need to ‘stack’ police calls. This means that the dispatchers hold emergency calls until a patrol car is free to respond. This has led to cases of delayed response to many police calls – domestic disturbances, MVA’s, assaults, etc. In some cases, a delay of over an hour!
I firmly believe in fiscal responsibility in government – I’m a taxpayer, too. I’m also a Providence Firefighter. I know what my job responsibilities are, and I know that I can’t perform my tasks adequately alone – or with just one or two additional firefighters on my truck. In order to carry out my responsibilities to the best of my ability, I need to arrive on the scene as part of (at least) a four-man crew. If you live in Providence, your life may depend on it. Firefighters and Policemen are this nation’s, this state’s, this city’s first line of defense.
A message to the politicians of this state - public safety is not the area to cut spending. Find other alternatives. But if you do decide to cut back staffing in your police or fire departments, level with your constituents. Tell them, “I’ve had to make some difficult decisions in order to hold the line on spending. You and your loved ones may not be fully protected in the event of a life-threatening emergency, but you won’t have to pay any additional taxes”.
At least give them the choice!