Friday, July 10, 2015

Exit letter to PFD members...

Well, here I am just a couple of months away from permanent retirement from the Providence Fire Department…not wanting to face the fact that this part of my journey is over. I guess this is perfectly natural considering this is the greatest profession anyone could ever choose and the PFD is among the best fire departments in the entire country! …and so are the people!

From the moment I joined the department in 1980 my time has been leading toward the reward of my retirement. I’m extremely thankful to have made it this long in the streets. I may be battered but I’m not broken…not completely, anyway. I have to say that the experience has been even greater than I could have ever dreamed. I came from a firefighter family (my father retired as a Lt. on the PFD) and saw second hand the closeness and camaraderie which existed on this job; but no one can actually understand the true connection firefighters everywhere have for each other prior to working side by side with their brother firefighters. It is a singularly unique situation. We fight together side by side, as a team, in life threatening situations where you literally rely on the man next to you to keep you safe and you provide the same measure of unconditional support for him. We live together as a family, sometimes for years at a time. In this manner we are different from the military or police, even though we do share a common goal of “everyone goes home” as our first priority when we begin a shift.

I remember the many firefighters and officers who taught me along the way. Each had their own valuable lessons to bestow on a new firefighter and then a new officer. I listened, I learned and I trained until I was the best firefighter I could be. I owe everything good that I am as a firefighter and officer to those who came before me and shared with me the valuable lessons they had learned via older firefighters or from their own experiences. With this in mind, I hope that I’ve passed on some knowledge over the years to some of the guys I’ve worked with because that’s the ultimate goal of an old firefighter – helping to insure that the young firefighters actually become old firefighters. I urge the young guys to attempt to learn something new every day – what you learn today may end up saving your life tomorrow!

I would also encourage the younger firefighters to get involved with the many aspects of this job outside the station walls. There are so many opportunities to join with your brothers and sisters in a myriad of activities – some social, some athletic and some political. These times will be among the greatest experiences you will enjoy in your life so take full advantage when the opportunities arise. You’ll be surprised how quickly time slips away when you love your job.

Also, let your voice be heard. Don’t be afraid to speak up and voice concern over the direction the department or the union is heading. Remember…you are the department…you are the union! Make sure you attend the union meetings and when differences of opinion may arise, leave those differences in the union hall. Remember, there is strength in unity. No one else has your back except your brothers and sisters in the local. Respect the rank of Chief Officers who are not in the union but be very careful in placing your trust in them, they have other masters. Respect the office of those outside the fire service who are your superiors in the Chain-of Command (Commissioners, Councilpersons & Mayors) but NEVER trust them! They are all political animals, and as such are watching out only for themselves. This has been proven to us time after time.

To my many friends and peers on the PFD, thank you for the greatest experience of my life! I have enjoyed every minute I’ve spent with you both on and off duty. This job takes its toll both physically and emotionally but the rewards far outweigh the cost. Unfortunately all of us will reach this moment of separation from active duty in the fire service. There are many who, like me, are being forced to retire this year…and the next couple of years. As we go, we all hope that the members who remain will keep the tradition and reputation of the Providence Fire Department alive and well. Remember, you (we) are the department! …you (we) are the union!

Stay safe!

Tom Kenney

Providence Journal - Letter to the Editor

In response to Steven Frias’ op/ed in Wednesday’s Journal titled, “Soaked by RI’s firefighter unions” my first thought was – are you kidding?

He attempts to show that RI’s firefighter unions should be stopped in our attempt to fight the implementation of an additional 14 hours being added to our work week. He states that RI fire unions fought to reduce our work week from 56 hours to 42 hours in 1970-71. Again I say, are you kidding?

That was 45 years ago. He wants to rationalize changing our hours back to 56 because that was the norm for firefighters in RI 45 years ago? Mr. Frias is an attorney. Are lawyers working the same hours they did in 1971. What if I increased his weekly hours by 33% every week? Think he’d think that was fair? What if I told him that he’d also have to reduce his hourly wage by over 20%? That is what the cities and towns expect of their firefighters if they are going to save taxpayer money by switching to the 3 platoon, 56 hour, system.

1971 – All in the Family debuted on TV; The Ed Sullivan Show was still on the air; J. Edgar Hoover was still head of the FBI; 1st class postage was 6 cents; and Don McLean’s “American Pie” was released…
1971 - Average Income per year $10,600.00; Average Monthly Rent $150.00; Cost of a gallon of Gas 40 cents; Datsun 1200 Sports Coupe $1,866.00; 3 Bedroom House Chicago $16,500. Things have changed for everyone!
Yes it was a long, long time ago…and firefighter unions, and many other unions across the entire country, fought many hard battles to gain improvements and compensation in the workplace. Heck, it was only 7 short years before, in 1964, when the Civil Rights Act was passed after many contentious demonstrations and protests. Would Mr. Frias, or some other person out there, like to roll the clock back to 1963 and take away the hard fought gains of the civil rights activists?

I think we’ve all improved our lot since 1971, at least I’d hope so. The future is about pushing ever forward, not rolling back to the so-called “good old days”!

Tom Kenney
Captain - Providence Fire Department

Steven Frias: Soaked by the firefighters unions

Posted Jul. 1, 2015 at 2:01 AM
Recently, the Rhode Island Supreme Court ruled that the North Kingstown Town Council could implement a new fire department platoon structure that increases firefighters’ workweek from 42 to 56 hours. According to North Kingstown Town Council member Carol Hueston, Rhode Island taxpayers could save $75 million to $100 million per year from this reform. However, General Assembly legislation was quickly introduced to give firefighters a 42-hour workweek. Firefighters said this legislation guaranteed them a workweek which they have enjoyed in the past. Rhode Island history shows that firefighters did not always have a 42-hour week and that the shift to one was partly the result of intimidation and binding arbitration.

In 1967, the Cranston firefighters union wanted higher pay and fewer hours. Cranston Mayor James DiPrete Jr. offered the firefighters an 8 percent raise but resisted the request to reduce their workweek from 56 hours to 42 hours because firefighters “spend part of their workweek sleeping.” As a result, the firefighters union began picketing City Hall and the fire station. When some city employees crossed the picket line, they reportedly became the victims of threats. Frank Montanaro, leader of the Cranston firefighters’ union, called the dispute “combat” and picketing spread to all public construction sites in Cranston, thereby disrupting school construction. Cranston Herald editorials noted that the “56-hour workweek” was the “norm” for firefighters “all over the country” and called the picketing a “way to make the residents come to their knees.” The picketing at the schools only came to a halt after a Superior Court judge ruled that it was designed “to coerce, compel, force and bludgeon” officials into submission.

The next year, DiPrete relented. In the spring of 1968, an agreement was reached that gave the firefighters union a 13 percent raise and a reduction in work hours from 56 to 48. Montanaro called the contract “one of the best firemen’s agreements in New England.”
Pleased but not appeased, Montanaro obtained more a few months later. Right before the 1968 election, a new agreement gave the firefighters another pay raise and further reduced their workweek to 42 hours as of July 1, 1971.

DiPrete considered the contract a “milestone.” It soon turned into a millstone around the neck of taxpayers. The reduction from a 56-hour week to a 42 hours helped increase the staffing at the Cranston fire department by about 25 percent in less than five years. At the same time, the pay of firefighters increased by about 35 percent and fire department personnel costs nearly doubled.

Montanaro considered the deal “one of the best in the United States” and indicated he would “send copies of the contract to unions in other cities.” One by one, like a row of dominoes, Rhode Island communities gave way before the firefighter unions’ march to a 42-hour workweek. In 1970, a binding arbitration decision led to Providence adopting a 42-hour workweek. In 1971, Warwick agreed to implement a 42-hour week, after its legal challenge to Rhode Island’s binding arbitration law failed. Those who could have stopped them would not. Those who would have stopped them could not. By 1989, nearly all of Rhode Island’s paid fire departments had gone to a 42 hour workweek.

Soon thereafter, The Providence Journal reported that a United States Commerce Department survey showed that Rhode Island had one of the highest levels of per-capita spending on fire protection in the nation. More recent analyses show Rhode Island is still among the highest.
High firefighter personnel costs are a major reason for Rhode Island’s high property taxes. To help lower Rhode Island’s property taxes, firefighters’ work schedules will need to increase to a 56 hour workweek, like that of many of their peers across the nation. Unless a change is made, Rhode Island taxpayers will continue to get soaked by the firefighters unions, as they have been for more than four decades.

Steven Frias, a twice-monthly contributor, is a regulatory attorney, Rhode Island’s Republican National Committeeman and the author of "Cranston and Its Mayors: A History."

Go Local Prov - Ken Block no fire expert

There’s been much discussion this past week regarding the governor’s request for the GA to enact tolling for trucks on RI’s highways. Much of the criticism is aimed, rightfully, at the governor because she’s trying to rush this through without proper discussion or investigation of the best way, if any, to implement this system.

Similarly, there has been a rush by Mayor Elorza to implement a structural change to the scheduling of firefighters in the City of Providence. He, and his staff, announced over a month ago that this change would take place on July 1st, but as of June 26ththey have yet to come up with a definitive plan. This is totally irresponsible on his part. He still isn’t fully aware of the ripple effects, and their costs, that this will set into motion. He still doesn’t know whether any system he implements will save the city any money or whether it will cost the city more money to run the fire department. All he knows is that, at least in the initial stages, it will cut down on overtime costs. The same overtime costs that the city has chosen to pay over the last ten years or so because it was cheaper to pay the overtime than it was to hire more firefighters. At one point in 2013 the PFD was short by over 200 firefighters until they hired 100+ new firefighters in 2014. At present the fire department is still over 100 firefighters short of the full staffing that existed prior to the overtime “problem”.

Enter Ken Block of Watchdog RI and Dan Kinder, the lawyer for the town of North Kingstown who helped the town change their firefighter’s schedules. He then sold a bill of goods to mayors and town managers stating that they could all save thousands, or millions, of dollars by implementing the same plan. He, in his infinite wisdom as a fire department expert (not!), claimed it made no difference that one department might have 50 firefighters and 3,500 calls per year and another has 500 firefighters and over 45,000 calls per year. All fire departments are the same? Not so!

Mayor Elorza, having absolutely no knowledge of fire department operations and about 3 months experience in running a city, jumped on board without even discussing it with anyone who has a working knowledge of fire departments.

And then there’s Ken Block and Watchdog RI, the citizen(s) group seemingly set up to build a case for slashing fire department personnel and budgets in RI, to the rescue (pardon my pun). He has amassed quite a bit of raw data regarding RI fire departments including contracts, budgets and pension systems. He claims that the pension systems are unfunded and in trouble. Duh, thanks for pointing that out to the rest of the state, Ken, we didn’t know that.

He also claims to be the self-appointed guru in terms of knowledge of fire department shifts, staffing, costs and just about anything else that has to do with fire safety, firefighters and fire departments. In the search for truth and real facts it doesn’t help when John DePetro (another joker), Dan Yorke and Mark Patinkin acquiesce to his expertise on the subject of fire departments.

You know the old saying, “junk in equals junk out” with regard to supposedly error free software? I contend that this is exactly the case with all these so-called facts about fire department per capita costs that Mr. Block uses as basis for condemning RI fire departments and their costs. All the raw data in the world cannot change the facts. They can, however, convince people otherwise if they’re false, outdated, incorrectly entered or mistakenly interpreted. Mr. Block has been asked, on many occasions and by multiple persons, to share the link to the studies or surveys on which he bases all his conclusions. He has ignored these requests. He has stated that different factors regarding these studies, which have been put to him by people with working knowledge of the fire service, as “immaterial”. He did state that one of the statistics he quotes regularly is from a 1999 report.

He compares RI departments’ costs with the costs of other fire departments across the country. What he doesn’t seem to understand is the significance of the effects of population density, the percentage of volunteer departments vs. career departments, square mileage being protected and most importantly the presence or absence of EMS systems with ALS (Advanced Life Support) vs. limited or no EMS coverage included in fire department budgets. These are all huge factors in the costs of a department.

RI has a small percentage of volunteer departments, most are career departments. Nationwide only 8.2% of all fire departments are career departments with all the costs associated with such. In fact, 65.9% are fully volunteer.

Almost all, if not all, RI fire departments run with full EMS with ALS. Nationwide only 16.8% of all fire departments run to this standard with all of the costs associated with such. A full 38.6% of fire departments across the country run with no EMS at all connected to their fire department budgets.

As for the factor of population density, it is far more costly and presents a much higher risk for fire spread from building to building in densely populated areas. RI is the 2nd most densely populated state in the USA, behind on New Jersey. This fact also, justifiably, contributes to an increase in the cost of fire protection.

In another one of the charts posted on Watchdog RI’s website he compares RI’s fire costs to an area with about 1/9 the area of RI. On that very same chart he compares us an area about 4 times the size of RI.

Can you say, “apples to oranges”?

With the lack of anything I consider close to being accurate with the “statistics” he uses as the basis of his per capita costs for comparison of fire departments I have a very strong suspicion that his statement of “fact” that “67% of career fire departments used 24-hour shifts – and the vast majority of those were 3 platoon”.

It is time the media stop anointing Ken Block as the fire service expert in RI. If he is going to continue to claim this himself let him prove his conclusions by verifying his data and sharing his sources.

Making hasty decisions based on incorrect information helps no one. I believe the general public supports Mayor Elorza’s plan to add 14 more hours per week to his firefighters’ schedules because they’ve been told by “the expert” that this is the way the rest of the country does it and that RI’s fire departments cost much more per capita than anywhere else in the country.

Let him prove all his “facts” and I’ll stand down!

Tom Kenney

Letter to Mayor Elorza

Mayor Elorza:

I’m writing as a concerned citizen of RI who has some very grave concerns about the path you’ve chosen with the Providence Fire Department. For the record let me state that I’m a Providence firefighter and have been for 35 years. My love and dedication to this department is second to none. I’ve given almost the entirety of my adult life to this department and feel I need to speak up before you single handedly (under the advice of your COO & Mr. Kinder) destroy over 150 years of proud and courageous service of this nationally recognized fire department.

You are asking every member of this department to work an additional 33% more hours for a 5-10% raise. Think about how absurd that really is. You will not save any taxpayer money. Already over 50 members have retired (with many more in the wings). Your so-called buffer of over 30 extra firefighters per group before reaching O/T has just dwindled by 17 or more per platoon. You will not cut out O/T in this way and you will look foolish when the media runs an article in a year or so stating that Elorza’s plan to eliminate O/T has failed.

This union (my opinion) will never come to an agreement with you on this issue. We (again, my opinion) will fight you through as many courts and judges as may be needed. Think about the massive legal fees, damages and retroactive pay the city will have to pay if we are successful. Remember that North Kingstown was working with an expired contract. Remember further that North Kingstown’s fire union missed a mandatory filing date for negotiating a secondary contract and that’s the loophole that created the Supreme Court decision. You are rolling the dice, in a best case scenario.

Also, and I don’t know whether you’re aware of this or not, your COO has a very strong personal agenda against the PFD. At a picket a few years ago some of the PFD members, in very poor taste, chided him and made derogatory remarks regarding his sexual orientation. This history makes him intent on inflicting as much damage as possible on the members of this department – on a very personal level.

Think about it…all those individuals who are pushing you the hardest on this issue have much riding on you being successful on this issue. They have, however, nothing on the line if you are unsuccessful. They are in the wings pushing and hoping, but not risking any precious political capital. You are the sole individual who is tied, politically, to the success or failure of “your” proposal.

Smiley is not a player in this in the eyes of the general public and will live to run again if you fall on your face. Kinder is attempting to gain clients of the other cities and towns of this state and will be in a very good position to do so if you succeed. If you do not succeed, he will state that you screwed it up and will continue to lobby other mayors – no damage done. The same goes for the other mayors and the political pundits who have praised your “courage”. They will, undoubtedly, push on and state that you didn’t follow through or didn’t have the political courage or savvy to get it done, again no damage to their reputations. As for the Commissioner, he would love to see savings in the Public Safety budget on the back of the fire department. That would allow him to strengthen the police department, always his priority, without having to lobby for extra money from your administration. He has absolutely no knowledge or understanding of what it takes to run an effective fire department!

Pardon the puns, but you are playing with fire! If you are unsuccessful, you take the heat all by yourself. If you are successful, and you force the PFD into this new schedule, you better hope that not a single death or serious injury (to the public or to a PFD firefighter) can be attributed to the effects of the extra weekly hours or the confusion of implementing the new system.

Also, you should not underestimate the fact that the general public can see right through your lies regarding “the B word”. They don’t buy the fact that you state that the current PFD system will lead the City down the road to bankruptcy, especially when you continue to find ways to spend future tax income with grandiose ideas such as the trolley system. They simply don’t call you on it because they, like the others who are pushing you, would love to see the City save taxes on the backs of the firefighters. They will, however, hold you accountable if your plan fails to save money or, God forbid, costs these taxpayers extra money – a distinct possibility!

Tom Kenney