City scraps plan to keep heavy rescue in the fire barn

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WATERTOWN — The city is scrapping plans to drastically reduce the number of calls in which the fire department’s heavy rescue truck will be used.

City Manager Sharon A. Addison said Friday that there are now no plans to proceed with a new Standard Operating Procedure — or SOP — that would have sent the heavy rescue truck on far fewer calls. The new model was scheduled to start before Sept. 1.

Calling it “investigatory,” the city manager said the plan was not finalized when it went public back in July. Since then, the department’s battalion chiefs, department leaders and firefighters opposed the move.

“It’s not going to work for whatever reason,” she said.

She’s directed Fire Chief Dale C. Herman to come up with yet a different deployment model for the department’s staff and equipment.

Firefighters said Friday they were wondering whether the proposed deployment model would be used, saying it was the first they heard of the decision not to go forward with it.

Chief Herman also said he’s perplexed by the new directive, since he doesn’t know how to implement what Ms. Addison wants him to do.

She’s given him parameters that the new deployment model include a battalion chief, three captains and apparatus that could handle all types of calls.

The chief contended her directive is not doable.

“It’s like building a house and you can’t use nails and you can’t use screws,” he said. “And you don’t use a hammer.”

She blamed Chief Herman for not putting together a deployment model that would work since eight captains were demoted to firefighters in a cost-saving move on July 1, 2016.

For years, two firefighters assigned to the city’s fire department heavy rescue truck were typically sent out several times a day on all kinds of calls, from helping out senior citizens injured in falls to assisting victims suffering from heart attacks or involved in a serious motor vehicle crashes.

Under the proposed deployment model, the two firefighters assigned to the heavy rescue truck would have been shifted to fire engines. The rescue truck would only go on calls for serious motor vehicle accidents and similar incidents.

In a series of emails that the Watertown Daily Times has obtained, Battalion Chief Tucker Wiley urged the city manager to back off from the directive — called “Model 3” — of taking the heavy truck off the road, because the move would not save money and not be as efficient.

“This plan has been hatched to try to win an argument in court,” he wrote to the city manager on July 12.

The city is in the midst of a three-year contract dispute with the firefighters’ union that has resulted in a series of legal challenges, including arbitration cases, improper labor practice accusations and grievances against the city.

The minimum manning clause in the contract — that stipulates 15 firefighters must be on duty at all times — has been the main sticking point in the stalled contract. The city contends that the clause causes overstaffing, while the union argues it would be unsafe to eliminate it.

The 70-member firefighters’ union has been without a contract since July 2014.

For months, the chief and Ms. Addison have been at odds about how to put into effect a new deployment model to make sure the fire department is adequately supervised during fires and other serious incidents as the result of the captains’ demotions.

They also disagree about whether Ms. Addison signed off on the heavy rescue truck proposal. She insisted she never gave him the directive to go ahead with the plan; it was in discussion in a June 12 meeting and that Chief Herman recommended that specific proposal after looking at two other models, she said Friday. The chief had been given a June 12 deadline to come up with a different model after two others were put in place.

He maintained that the decision was made by the city’s negotiating team after he left that June 12 meeting and that he has said right along he doesn’t think the deployment model should be changed until after the legal matters with the firefighters’ union have been resolved.

“I stand by on my experience, training and knowledge in my career in emergency response,” he said Friday.

However, Ms. Addison wrote to Battalion Chief Wiley in a July 14 email that she was surprised that the heavy rescue model was not supported by anyone in the department, since she relied on the fire chief’s expertise and knowledge that he provided her.

“…And now I’m questioning his abilities and motives, especially when you cite it is less efficient, more costly and not supported,” she wrote to Battalion Chief Wiley.

On Friday, she accused the fire chief of “deliberately setting me up to defame me to make it look like I directed it when I didn’t direct it.”

However, an email about the June 12 meeting from Ms. Addison to the fire chief seems to contradict that assessment.

“As discussed and decided during our meeting today, Model 3 will serve as the interim solution with four apparatus. The objective is to implement this model beginning Sept. 1, 2017,” she wrote.

In the past, Ms. Addison accused Chief Herman of not being a team player during the contract dispute with the firefighters’ union. She also decided not to give him a salary increase this year, saying she was not happy with his job performance.

As far as he knows, Daniel Daugherty, president of the Watertown Professional Fire Fighters Association Local 191, said there are no current discussions about what comes next with a new deployment model. He also wasn’t surprised that it’s not going forward.

“It was ill advised and not well thought out,” he said, adding he also knew the fire chief was not backing it.

The fire chief and the city manager were supposed to talk about the issue on Aug. 4 but the subject never came up during the meeting, Chief Herman said.

“Right now, we’re reviewing Course of Actions,” she said. “All the information was preliminary that came out in July. Nothing was decided.”

In a memo to Chief Herman, the city manager spelled out a goal of having a fire department staff of 65. The department currently has 72 members, with two probable retirements. Under her direction, firefighters have not been replaced following retirements and promotions have not been occurring, Chief Herman said.

The fire department matters are expected to become a campaign issue during this fall’s City Council election.

A group of residents are organizing a rally to show support for firefighters from 1 to 5 p.m. Aug. 27 at the Watertown Veterans of Foreign Wars, 231 Bellew Ave.

The group put together the local Red Lights For Firefighters Facebook page.

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