Mayor open to ideas on station
Grebien says he would listen to council’s alternatives to closing Columbus Avenue firehouse
PAWTUCKET – In a letter submitted to the City Council Wednesday night, Mayor Donald R. Grebien requested that District 3 Councilor Terrence E. Mercer and District 4 Councilor John J. Barry III “actively involve themselves in the process” as the mayor says he is “open to alternatives to the closure” of the Columbus Avenue Fire Station.
Grebien in the two-page letter writes that Local 1261 – the firefighters’ union – was “not willing to make any concessions, citing their contract as the reason for their unwillingness” when it came to finding alternative options to shuttering the station, saying the administration met numerous times with union leadership to discuss options, other than layoffs, to offset the loss of a $1.8 million SAFER grant.
“Without the support and willingness of Pawtucket Fire Department Local 1261 union officials to work out alternatives, the administration’s options were limited,” Grebien writes, stating it was determined that closing the station “provided the best alternative to the city to not having to lay off 15 of our brave fire personnel.”
After many years of discussion regarding the station’s closure, dating as far back as 1992, the city recently moved forward with plans to close the station when the loss of a $1.8 million SAFER Grant – combined with required structural repairs at the station in excess of $1 million – put the jobs of 15 firefighters in jeopardy, city officials have said. A facilities assessment of all city-owned buildings by Symmes, Maini, & McKee Associates that was completed in February 2014 identified a capital expenditure need of approximately $1 million – not adjusted for inflation – for the Columbus Avenue station, officials have said.
City officials have also said that the removal of one engine would not impact the fourminute national standard for response time, but it does allow the city to remove its oldest engine from service while at the same time redistributing personnel to other stations. A response time under four minutes is the national standard recommended by the National Fire Protection Association.
Grebien in the letter – dated May 9 – writes that he has been and will continue to remain “open to alternatives to the closure of the station that do not involve layoffs, jeopardize the financial viability of the city, and do not involve raiding the city’s reserves that we have all worked so hard to rebuild since 2011.”
“The purpose of this communication is to seek the input of the council in the ongoing discussions with the Pawtucket Fire Department Local 1261 union officials,” the letter continues.
Grebien writes that due to the fact that the Columbus Avenue station coverage overlaps their districts, he requested Mercer and Barry “actively involve themselves in the process to determine if such an agreement can be reached.”
The letter concludes with the mayor stating that the closing of the station became the only viable option for the taxpayers because the union “failed to provide any other viable options that didn’t involve laying off firefighters.” He said that he continues to be open to dialogue with union leaders to preserve the 15 firefighters, but ends the letter by saying “if the union remains unwilling to offer other solutions, the only viable option will be to close the station in order to avoid the layoffs while maintaining our fiscal integrity.”
Prior to Wednesday’s council meeting, the City Council Ad Hoc Committee on Public Safety met to discuss and review the 2011 Public Safety Solutions Inc. fire and rescue performance review and audit.
In 2011, the city engaged PSSI to conduct a complete analysis of the Fire Department operation. That analysis determined that with modern fire suppression systems and technology, the city would be able to provide “high standard fire services” with a total of three fire stations across the city. However, city officials have said they are planning to continue to operate five stations.
IAFF Local 1261 President Will Maher in April said that he felt the city’s study was not based in facts and he had a presentation and rebuttal that he felt showed a more accurate vision of what fire services in Pawtucket would look like without the Columbus Avenue station.
Curt Varone, an attorney with 44 years in fire service, provided the Fire Department’s rebuttal with a PowerPoint presentation disputing the city’s claims during an April 27 public meeting on the closing of the fire station. He argued that the city is not compliant with the National Fire Protection Association’s national standard and additionally said closing the station would “worsen an already bad situation.” Varone said in his professional opinion based on current staffing levels and activity levels of the Pawtucket Fire Department, it would be a mistake to close the Columbus Avenue station.
During Wednesday’s committee meeting, Maher said that he thought one of the first things the panel should consider was how many people voiced their opposition to the closure of the fire station during the public meeting.
He additionally said that the city’s study was “not based on safety. Any basis that it is safe for taxpayers or residents is way off … Our study is truthful. I believe it’s worth a lot more than the study the city paid for.”
At-Large Councilor Thomas E. Hodge, who chairs the committee, said he called Wednesday’s meeting for a number of reasons, but largely because PSSI President and CEO Leslie Adams seemed to agree with Varone’s findings when questioned during the public meeting.
“Our own experts seemed to agree more with Mr. Varone than with the city,” Hodge said. “That concerns me on the safety aspect … He seemed to agree more with the study presented that evening than ours.”
Public Safety Director Antonio J. Pires said that the 2011 study wasn’t looking at any particular conclusion, calling it a “fairly comprehensive audit” that encompassed many things. He said the intent at the time was to take inventory of best practices and whether there were other practices that could be employed.
“It is extremely broad in nature,” Pires said.
Mercer, a committee member, said for the people who live in the area covered by the Columbus Avenue station, it “clearly is a safety issue.”
While Mercer said that there are certainly financial considerations that come into play, he said it is “not solely a fiscal issue. I believe that message was heard loud and clear by the administration.”
Mercer additionally said he has heard from his constituents, saying “they are concerned and in some cases fearful,” about the station’s proposed closure.
Pires responded that when the mayor speaks to a fiscal issue, it is understood that it is “not our desire or intent to adversely affect public safety.” He said that while finances are a consideration, they are not a driver at the expense of the national standards.
“It was never ‘We don’t care about public safety,’” Pires said.
Hodge concluded the meeting by saying that “obviously, we’re all looking for a resolution that addresses public safety. The mayor’s letter seems to leave the door open. If we can get everybody at the table, perhaps we can save that station.”