Following the lead of the Oak Bluffs personnel board, Oak Bluffs selectmen voted unanimously Tuesday to split up the fire and EMS departments.
The hourlong discussion in the packed Oak Bluffs library meeting room was highly contentious at times, underscoring a rift in the department that some say has been festering since the two departments were combined three years ago.
The vote eliminates the firefighter duties of the full-time firefighter/paramedics, the majority of whom voted to join the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) this July, forming IAFF Local 5137.
Their positions were created in an effort to provide better firefighter coverage during daytime hours, when most of the volunteer, or “call,” members are at work.
In a memo to the personnel board and at its last meeting, Chief John Rose stated that the “experiment” of combining the two positions has been counterproductive and has hurt morale. His assertion was backed by an Oct. 3 report from frequently used consultant, retired Brewster Fire Chief Roy Jones.
The two departments were combined three years ago, in large part because of a recommendation from a previous report by Mr. Jones.
Looking to temper the combustible atmosphere Tuesday night, chairman of the selectmen Kathy Burton laid out clear ground rules at the outset. Representatives from the personnel board, Chief Rose and his staff, representatives from the IAFF, and representatives from the volunteer firefighters were given 10 minutes to make their case.
Since negotiations between the town and the IAFF are ongoing, Ms. Burton said selectmen would refrain from commenting.
Personnel board vice chairman Jason Balboni said his board’s 2-1 vote to split the departments on Oct. 17 was based on the memo from Mr. Jones, and input from Chief Rose and members of the department staff.
“In the end, we voted what was best for the taxpayers,” Mr. Balboni said.
Chief Rose reiterated that the full-time paramedic/firefighters did not, as intended, take the strain off the volunteer firefighters on daytime calls, in large part because they’re often on off-Island transport runs during the day. “They’re so busy doing the job they were hired to do as EMTs and paramedics, and answer ambulance runs, and take patients from Martha’s Vineyard mainly to Boston, which is a seven-hour trip, they’re just not there to answer calls,” he said. “We decided it would be best to change it back, so they can focus on being EMTs and paramedics and do the jobs they were hired to do.”
“We hear from our core people that it’s not working,” Deputy Chief Shawn Broadley said. “There’s friction being caused. Personally, I believe this is the best way to handle it.”
Town labor counsel Jack Collins described combining departments as “an experiment that did not work.”
“Going forward, Chief Jones has a vision that Chief Rose also shares about structuring the department in a way that everybody works together,” he said. “It looks to them that putting it back the way it was would make a lot of sense.”
Mr. Collins said a yes vote by selectmen was only step one in restructuring the fractious department, and that union negotiations are ongoing.
“Nothing is going to change tomorrow,” he said. “But we have an obligation under the law to keep an open mind and to bargain where we either reach an agreement or we don’t have any point in meeting anymore. Right now, the town hasn’t put any proposals on the table yet.”
Bob McCarthy, IAFF district field service representative and president emeritus of the Professional Firefighters of Massachusetts, which represents over 200 unions and 12,000 firefighters, EMS, and paramedics, spoke on behalf of IAFF Local 5137.
Mr. McCarthy said splitting the two departments would be “regressive,” and that in all his years of experience, no department has made such a move.
“I’ve organized 15 locals in the last six years, every local was like this, which had a [full-time] and volunteer department, and haven’t had any problems,” he said. “As far as I’m concerned, this whole charade is union retaliation, plain and simple, and that’s a sad commentary. People who lose in this retaliation are the taxpayers, the homeowners, and the people who do business here, and that’s wrong. You have the foundation to have a great fire department here; we should build on that foundation instead of destroying it. There’s no reason why it can’t work here.”
Chief Rose has retaliated against the paramedic/firefighters who voted to unionize in July, which has resulted in five charges of unfair labor practices which are currently being weighed at the Labor Relations Board, Mr. McCarthy said.
“Prior to the union forming, the chief never discussed the combined departments as an experiment,” he said. “He never discussed the arrangement as temporary.”
The recommendations from Mr. Jones, the town’s consultant, were dubious because he was hired by Chief Rose personally to conduct the survey, Mr. McCarthy said.
“The town did not hire the services of a professional consultant through an objective bid process,” he said. “The so-called report about the drastic overhaul of the department is far below the quality that the board and the taxpayers deserve. I recommend the board of selectmen demand an investigation and hire professional consultants without any affiliations to the chief or the town. This process should be transparent and let all entities participate.”
Selectman Mike Santoro disagreed. “We have a great department, we have a great volunteer system, you come in from out of town, there’s no way you can really know them,” he said. “Union or nonunion, these are great people, and they’ll continue to do their jobs.”
Mr. McCarthy did his cause no favors by calling the town “Oaks Bluffs” on several occasions, a misstep that Ms. Burton highlighted.
“The choice facing the board is whether its allegiance is to the residents and taxpayers of Oak Bluffs, or to the people who have instigated a war on the ordinary rank-and-file firefighters who exercise their rights to form a union,” he said. Mr. McCarthy asked selectmen to discern between supporting a worthy public official and having blind faith in an appointee: “Support does not mean you must ratify everything the chief recommends and every decision he makes.”
Alluding to character questions that have been raised about Chief Rose, Mr. McCarthy said, “As we are learning about allegations about high-powered executives across the country, no person, including the fire chief, is above the law or above scrutiny.”
Call firefighter Lt. Tad Medeiros told selectmen the unionizing paramedic/firefighters have engendered a great deal of resentment because they don’t show up for drill, despite getting paid for it, which the call force does not. He listed three full-time firefighter paramedics on his roster who had attended only three of the past 15 monthly training drills, and one who had attended just five drills.
“The frustrating part is, them coming in, making a big deal about being there, and that they have to get a boat, when we have to be there as well,” he said. “When they’re there complaining about what we’re doing, it makes things difficult, it makes it hard to coexist.”
Rich Michelson, a 15-year volunteer EMT, countered that many call firefighters also don’t make drill on a regular basis. He asked selectmen to scrutinize the accusations about Chief Rose’s inappropriate relationships with women in the department. After Chief Rose’s mother shouted that Mr. Michelson had been demoted, Ms. Burton quickly ended his line of inquiry. An incensed Deputy Chief Broadley then railed at full-time paramedic/firefighter Lindsay Hopkins for frequently missing drill and complaining about her firefighter duties, requiring Ms. Burton to again restore order.
“We have room for improvement,” selectman Brian Packish said at the conclusion of the meeting. “Since this combination happened, this conversation has been brewing.”
Discussing the difficulty of the decision, selectman Greg Coogan said, “I do think we have a problem, and I do think we have blurred lines. Our job now is to unblur those lines and make it a more efficient department.”
Unable to speak at the meeting, Ms. Hopkins, who lives in Edgartown, spoke to The Times on Wednesday morning. “That attack [by Deputy Chief Broadley] was completely out of line,” she said. “I show up to most of my trucks drills and meetings, and I have the documentation to prove it.” Ms. Hopkins said that since being hired, her training schedule has been limited due to cancer surgery that left 50 stitches in her back and underarms, and later, due to being at risk for ovarian torsion, and maternity leave.
“After I got back from maternity leave I immediately coordinated my ladder training with Deputy Broadley,” she said. “I did say I didn’t want to be a firefighter, but that’s part of my job. Everybody has things at their job they don’t like. I take my obligations to the department very seriously.”