'Interim' chief faces Fire Department challenges

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After being on the job for more than 12 weeks, Peter McMichael, the first man to head the Warwick Fire Department who did not come up through its ranks, is impressed by the department’s personnel and in awe of the range of conditions its personnel face daily.

McMichael said Warwick presents a “number of unique challenges” to the department, in that the city has 39 miles of shoreline, an airport, Amtrak and interstate highways. Situations for which the department needs to be prepared to respond include a rescue on the bay, a hazardous chemical spill, incidents on Route 95, building fires and incidents at T.F. Green Airport.

McMichael notes that on a weekend, especially at this time of year, the department’s marine units will respond to two or three calls. In addition, he notes the department has a dive team and a technical rescue team trained to extricate people from confined spaces and heights.

“The fire department of today is not the fire department of 60 years ago,” he said.

He added: “You have a lot here and you have a talented group of firefighters. They are focused on doing their job and working together to deliver the best possible service to the city.”

Yet there are uncertainties about the department, starting with McMichael, who although in the position as its leader is still the interim chief. The Board of Public Safety appointed McMichael on March 12, but in subsequent press releases issued by the mayor’s office he was identified as the interim chief.

In an interview June 5, Mayor Joseph Solomon said: “That’s just the way I operate. I don’t act quickly on those items. Chief McMichael and myself get along very well. I wouldn’t have brought him on if I didn’t have confidence in his ability to do the job. I know he possesses the characteristics to perform the job well. He’s got a super temperament. There’s no one calmer.”

Solomon offered no timetable as to when McMichael would get the title of chief on a permanent basis.

“I think in the future he’ll be a good asset to the city,” he said.

Asked Tuesday about the designation, McMichael said the title doesn’t affect his outlook and he carries the responsibilities and the authority regardless.

Before coming to Warwick, McMichael put in nearly 30 years of service with the Providence Fire Department, which he joined in 1989. He was promoted to lieutenant in 2006 and became captain of the capital city’s fire prevention/arson squad in 2014. He was named the department’s fire marshal in 2015 and was responsible for a 30-person unit and preparing a $1.5 million budget annually.

Is the interim designation a form of probation, is that how the mayor explained it?

“You could look at it that way,” McMichael said. If it is a probationary period, he did not know how long it would last.

“I don’t look at it as an issue,” he said. “I imagine when the mayor is ready [he will bestow the title of chief]. I trust his judgment.”

One of the first issues McMichael identified when taking the post is the condition of equipment, which has required the department to borrow as many as five and six pieces of apparatus at a time from other departments as Warwick rescues, engines and ladders are undergoing repairs. He said that has improved, and as of Tuesday no apparatus were on loan to the city. (The exception is the yellow rescue that is on loan from the company providing the new rescue.) Of pride to the mayor is McMichael’s identification of a used ladder in Westerly with low mileage and in good condition, which the mayor was able to purchase for $25,750, saving more than $800,000 over the cost of a new ladder.

In a symbolic gesture, which also provided a photo opportunity, Solomon was to have handed the keys over to McMichael Tuesday in front of the ladder that has been repainted with “Warwick Ladder 1.” As the ladder was on a call, that didn’t take place, although it gave the men the chance to review the status of other equipment. The department is taking delivery of a new engine for one of the rescues, which the two noted is costing as much as the complete ladder, albeit it used, from Westerly.

McMichael applauded the department’s repair and maintenance division.

The city will take delivery of a new Rescue 4, costing $291,631, in July, and McMichael expects a new special hazards rescue truck will be delivered by the end of the year.

“Can’t you speed that up, light a fire under them?” Solomon said with a laugh. As the vehicle is custom made for Warwick, McMichael didn’t think that possible. It is costing $700,000 – but as McMichael noted, because of the department’s ability to secure grants, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is picking up the tab.

McMichael’s acknowledged the pension system and lack of a firefighters’ contract since last June are issues, although he’s confident that “in time” they will be resolved. Solomon had reached a tentative agreement with the union’s leadership that would have resolved the current year with no increase in pay as well as the contract for the year starting July 1 with no increase. In addition, it would have required that all new personnel be on the Tier II pension plan implemented for municipal employees and police in 2015.

Tier II, which reduces retiree benefits for new hires, was believed to have also applied to the Fire Department at the time, but the union challenged that understanding and won an arbitration ruling that Solomon, so far, hasn’t challenged. He said Wednesday an appeal of the ruling to Superior Court is still an option and he is considering that.

When the agreement reached by the executive board was presented to the union membership, the firefighters overwhelmingly rejected the agreement, sending the parties back to interest arbitration. McMichael said talks were as recent as this past Monday. He is not participating in the process.

Solomon said attorney Tim Bliss is dealing with arbitration.

“My door is open,” Solomon said when asked Wednesday if he is looking to reopen talks with the union.

High on McMichael’s list is the city’s financial situation, which he called “very important.” He is seeking to contain costs where he can, but notes it will be difficult to control overtime given minimum manning requirements and the mayor’s decision not to fill vacancies at this time.

As recently as three years ago, the department was at 227 members. As of Tuesday, it was 189.

While overtime costs promise to rise, McMichael noted that overall the department would probably save money, as it won’t be paying the pension and health care costs of new recruits.

Solomon said he has no intention of filling vacancies until a contract and the Tier II pension is resolved. He said he couldn’t hire recruits until he knows what it will cost to fill the ranks of the department.

Comments

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Jimmy

Solomon said appealing the Tier 2 ruling is still

An option? Why then did they already file last week (against council advice). Another court battle they will lose. The union is ready to talk. Maybe he should open that door a little wider.

Thursday, June 20
Jimmy

Where is the article in the beacon about Merolla and his friends at YKSM. Very interesting that the cities audit has taken 16 months. Merolla claims the FBI is talking to him, he berates the fire department at every meeting, and now we are supposed to believe an audit that he had commissioned by his friends won’t be biased as well. Your city council Pres is ethically challenged.

Thursday, June 20
Patient Man

I must have missed the "Interim" designation on the new Park & Rec Departments" Director. What a numbskull.

Thursday, June 20
Honestinfo

This is a nice piece of fluff journalisms to sell newspapers and keep Joe happy. What we need is a hard hitting story on what Joe has done to ruin the fire department. His interim fire chief has zero command experience. His assistant fire chief has zero command experience. My question for Lawyer Joe is when serious injury occurs how will you defend yourself and the City? The Mayors report card has been reported as poor. Lets see some real hard hitting stories

Thursday, June 20
davebarry

Get rid of minimum manning. having it is the driver of so much uncontrolled OT. The fact there used used to be 227 firemen in the city is a joke. We are way overstaffed.

Thursday, June 20
TPC

Patient Man you are absolutely correct.

Joe was quoted as saying :

In an interview June 5, Mayor Joseph Solomon said: “That’s just the way I operate. I don’t act quickly on those items.”

When are the citizens going to wake up and realize this guy is in way over his head? Between ethics violations, lying, not reading or even understanding contracts. It is truly unbelievable.

I heard his open door policy is a complete joke... refusing to meet with people and when he does he berates them.

Thursday, June 20
TPC

To be fair, they weren’t ethics “violations” they were simply unethical decisions. I guess that makes it okay.

Thursday, June 20
Daydreambeliever

What a boring article. We've gone over all of this countless tkmes. No useful information or answers just a waste of space and ink for an article.

Thursday, June 20
Fed up

https://www.wpri.com/target-12/warwick-councilmans-campaign-treasurer-was-also-partner-in-accounting-firm-hired-by-council/

Thursday, June 20
Fed up

Robert Cushman‎ to The Taxpayers' Spin

An open letter to Warwick Citizens:

With all of this news on Warwick’s financial problems splashed all over television, newspapers and social media, galvanized by the recent elimination of school sports, it makes me angry that the citizens of this city have been asleep at the wheel for so long letting the political leaders off the hook for creating this mess.

I’m sorry to inform you, but you are directly responsible for this mess. Your lack of involvement in the political process allowed the problems to fester and grow to the out of control proportions we are facing today. And if you think what is happening now is a one-time problem, you need a serious wake up call.

Many have been warning of this day for years. We were ignored and demonized.

This is the tip of the ice berg. These problems will continue to occur annually with the severity exponentially increasing.

Drive down any main road in the city, walk through a city or school building or visit a recreation area to experience firsthand the degradation in the city.

Water and sewer infrastructure is literally crumbling under are feet. You think the closure of Sandy Lane this past winter was an anomaly, get used to it. With estimates of $200+ million funds needed in the next 20 years to perform annual maintenance and no plan to raise those funds, failures like that will become routine.

Talk to some of your neighbors who own a home assessed in the $200,000 to $300,000 range. Assessments have skyrocketed, $50,000, $60,000, and some over $80,000. In another week those folks will soon be realizing the sticker shock when their tax bill has increased $600, 700 and $800+ range. Talk to the elderly on a fix income and ask them what they will have to cut out of their disposable income to be able to afford to make that kind of payment.

And all the while we have city leaders pointing fingers, blaming schools when their own spending is out of control and just about every new tax dollar collected in the city has been allocated to the city budget.

School Committee Chairwoman Backus complaining schools need more money yet signs a contract giving $13 million in teacher raises that they now can’t afford to pay? Where was the planning? Where is the coordinated approach by school and city leaders to figure out what is affordable and adopt negotiating guidelines to meet those limits? There isn’t any. It’s every-man for himself.

Where was the 5 year forecast that would have shown that the police, DPW and school contract should never have been signed? Oh yeah, I forgot, the Mayor stated that he could blow his noise with such a plan and the plan was never released.

Where are the givebacks from the union leaders who have won every step of the way in negotiating more and more lucrative salary, pension and healthcare benefits for their members that are un-affordable? Yet with the city facing a financial crisis and cherished programs being cut, they refuse to make a shared sacrifice to restore programs and they still want even more.

In the last decade more money is being spent in the city budget for people who use to work for the city, that provided services in the past, then the people performing services today. How much longer can we afford that to occur?

But no one really knows that. Some folks are content with using the kids as political pawns, making noise, holding a couple of rallies. They will be content and go back to sleep when school sports programs are restored.

In the meantime the very fabric of the city is being destroyed by politicians who are allowed to implement Band-Aid approaches that kick the can down the road while the city continues on it death spiral. Scott Avedisian did exactly that over the last 18 years and continued to get re-elected year after year.

So what are you going to do about it?

All of the stakeholders in this city really need to make a commitment to understand the serious structural issues plaguing the city and schools. If you can at least commit to do that, you will then have the ability to see through the political spin and hold the political leaders across the city accountable and elect people who are willing to solve the problem.

Profiles in courage are needed from our elected leaders to make the difficult decisions to put the city back on sound financial ground. That means confronting organized labor in the city and schools. It means demanding major structural changes in contracts that will save millions of dollars by reducing the unsustainable growth of legacy costs in the city budget and the unsustainable growth in active employee costs in the school budget. It means reallocating that money back into programs and service we have come to expect in Warwick without raising property taxes each year.

So it time for you to raise up and demand change. Are you willing to do that? Are you willing to support people with the will to tackle these issues and not abandon them when organized labor mounts a campaign to throw them out of office after one term for speaking up as I was 12 years ago?

If a larger group is interested in organizing and learning the facts let me know. I am committed to help.

Friday, June 21
Scal1024

I'll accept responsibility for MY role in Warwick's financial crisis as a taxpayer and citizen, when Bob Cushman accepts responsibility for HIS role in Warwick's financial crisis as a former member of the School Committee and a former 1 term City Councilman.

Wednesday, June 26
Scal1024

The Mayor should state he will NOT appeal the Tier II pension ruling as a show of good faith to the Unions. Why not take the loss, acknowledge it and move on? Now would be a great time to negotiate and tell the Union you will NOT appeal the decision w/ the idea of moving them into a pension system that is different than Tier II but still favorable to both sides. Maybe the deal won't be as beneficial to the City as Tier II but again, the City should be taking ANY gain they can get that helps curb costs wherever they can get it. I know some people have a negative perception of Unions and that is a very difficult thing to change. The bottom line is the City of Warwick is fixing NOTHING without concessions from the Unions and nobody is going to gain those concessions if the tone doesn't change.

I have been making this same comment on this website since 2015. Cote, Cushman and Stacia have said "cut, cut, cut" for years now. "Raise health care premiums, slash benefits etc." Nobody ever wants to acknowledge those cuts have to be gained through bargaining and negotiations which is always easier said than done. Rob Cote usually tells me the time for negotiating is over. Had the City taken my advice 4 or 5 years ago maybe some of those smaller concessions would have added up by now and had us in better financial standing today. We would have 5+ years of new hires in a new pension system, we could have gained higher co-pays and insurance co-shares, even had vested employees retire as a way to leave unfilled positions open, or fill them with newer hires that are less expensive to taxpayers. Instead we threaten appeals as a way to gain leverage? That just doesn't seem big picture to me. Use this as a way to move negotiations forward. The City doesn't need to fight little battles they've already lost, they need to look at the big picture and save us from financial ruin.

Wednesday, June 26
Jimmy

Scal,

My question is why would the mayor say “appealing is still a possibility” when he filed an appeal a week earlier. This problem with him is you can’t believe a word he says. Negotiations have been going on WITHOUT him in the room and they have been great. Then he gets word of what lawyers discussed and shuts it all down. If nothing gets done it will not be because the unions didn’t try. Yes the union won the ruling, it doesn’t mean they can’t negotiate it’s implementation.

Thursday, June 27