Looking to clear the air after a tumultuous summer at the Oak Bluffs Fire Department, selectmen held a public conversation with department members at their regular meeting Tuesday night.
The agenda simply read “Fire Department Command Staff.”
Addressing the crowded library meeting room, chairman Kathy Burton said there would be no discussion about the current state of the department, saying rather, “We just want to hear from the Fire Department command staff because they’ve asked to speak to us. I also want to caution us to be careful in any kind of response we might want to give anyone speaking from the Fire Department command staff because we have upcoming union negotiations.”
Before department members spoke, selectman Brian Packish told the board that he had received texts indicating that four department members, three from the newly formed Local 5137 chapter of the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), and one volunteer EMT, were told they could not attend because they were on duty. Three of the four, veteran volunteer EMT Rich Michaelson and firefighter/paramedics Kevin Kilduff and Chris Flanders, have been openly critical of Chief Rose’s leadership in previous articles in The Times.
“The point of this is to clear the air and start moving forward,” Mr. Packish said. “I just don’t want to walk out of this and have another conversation that four people were forced out. We want open and clean conversations so everyone can move forward in a healthy way.”
Chief Rose said their absence was a function of the new union rules, which had been discussed with town labor counsel Jack Collins. “He advised us that if there are any union personnel that are working during the time of a meeting, they just need to inform the command staff of their intentions to attend and we grant them permission to cover their shift and attend the meeting, with proper notice,” he said, adding that none of the four were on the command staff.
Ms. Burton said, per the agenda, only command staff were invited to speak, and suggested that others could watch the proceedings on MVTV.
Only a few of the 20 or so fire department attendees eventually spoke, and only after repeated prodding by Ms. Burton.
Captain Will deBettencourt, a 37-year volunteer veteran, eventually broke the ice. “We have a fabulous EMS system, the EMTs and paramedics are topnotch, and they do a helluva job,” he said. “We have a fantastic group of firefighters, die-hards, dedicated, well-trained volunteers. It’s a shame that all of the evolutions don’t all get seen by the public. Some of it’s by media and some by word of mouth. They don’t see the different tiers that go on to create the fabric of this fire department … I believe our chiefs have done a good job. OK, we have policies in place; some of them work, some need to be adjusted, but that’s what you do. If it doesn’t work you fix it, and I believe that’s the direction we’re headed … If any changes were made to the command, it would be a bigger mistake to the town, and it should be left the way it is.”
Captain Kyle Gatchell said there’s been “a lot of spinning of EMS perspective being negative toward the department and retaliatory remarks made.” He urged that Tuesday’s discussion be an open dialogue between all factions in the department, and the selectmen, to advance a sense of unity: “Like Captain deBettencourt said, when the alarm goes off, we all work together, and we all work great together.”
“The way the chiefs run the department is awesome,” firefighter Anthony Bendavid said.
“You clearly have our support,” Ms. Burton said.
In lieu of speaking Tuesday night, command staff member Lt. Mike Desrosiers, treasurer of IAFF local 5137, submitted a written statement to selectmen and town administrator Robert Whritenour.
Speaking to The Times on Wednesday, Lt. Desrosiers said that the IAFF advised him to submit the letter rather than engage in conversation, due to upcoming hearings at the Massachusetts Labor Relations board on Oct. 6.
He questioned whether any of the people who spoke at the meeting, other than Chief Rose, were actually on the command staff, per order of the meeting agenda, and also questioned Chief Rose’s explanation about union rules precluding attendance by on-duty members. “That was the first time I’ve heard the entire officer structure referred to as command staff,” he said. “There’s not a policy that exists that prevents you from going to an open meeting within town limits, as long as you maintain the ability to respond.”
Lt. Desrosiers also noted that Lt. Matt Bradley, a staunch ally of Chief Rose, was on duty until 6 pm that night, but still attended the meeting. John Gonsalves, union member EMT, was told he could not attend, and his shift ended at the same time.
Union lambastes leadership
The letter Lt. Desrosiers gave to selectmen and Mr. Whritenour first thanked the board for making the meeting public.
“We are hard-pressed to find any other explanation for [Chief Rose’s] request for a private meeting with the board of selectmen and a few cherry-picked call firefighters to show their support. We are thankful that the board has demonstrated leadership by making this meeting public.”
The letter asserted that the chief has attempted to pit volunteer firefighters and full-time firefighter/paramedics against one another.
“After we decided to organize, Chief Rose has used his regular call firefighter officer meetings to rouse distrust and animosity toward the union and the employees who unionized. Chief Rose now invokes the ‘friction’ that he created and encouraged as a reason to take drastic action against us.”
The letter stressed that unionizing had nothing to do with money. “We organized because of the unpredictable, often dysfunctional internal operation of the department that we feared compromised our ability to service the community,” the letter stated.
Addressing Chief Rose’s criticism that the union employees do not adequately train, the union questioned why this was never an issue before the vote to unionize.
“Many times we are unable to attend training because we are on calls, providing medical services to the Oak Bluffs community. Despite Chief Rose’s inflexibility with scheduling training, we have taken the initiative to train on our own as best as we can during work hours … Indeed, his own sister and shift commander rarely goes, despite living a few houses down from the fire station … We want a fair, objective system of standards that apply equally to all fire fighters — a system not guided by nepotism or emotional whims. Unfortunately, the town’s response has been to treat our desire for fairness with retaliation.”
The union contends Chief Rose is employing a range of union-busting tactics, some of which were outlined in a memo he submitted to the personnel board last week. Chief Rose wrote that he’d recently discovered a state law that firefighters have to live within 15 miles of the station they serve.
Almost all of the unionizing firefighter/paramedics commute from off-Island. In his memo to the personnel board, Chief Rose recommended “a remediation program that gives current EMS staffers that they have a definite timeframe to come into compliance. This would certainly result in a fair amount of disruption in department operations, and might place a burden on staff members and their families. One alternative, and one that is in keeping with what I expect will be one of Chief Jones’ recommendations, is that the personnel board promptly amend the job descriptions of the EMS staff to no longer include firefighting duties.”
In response, the union letter stated, “We are asking you to stop the threats to take our work away, to stop the punishment for organizing, to stop Chief Rose from violating the law and our rights, and to start recognizing the Union as having a lawful right to be a partner in workplace conditions.”
Ending on a conciliatory note, the union said its goal was not to remove Chief Rose, and that at the end of the day, it was seeking to achieve exactly what the selectmen hoped to achieve Tuesday night: “We urge you to see the formation of the union as an opportunity for legitimate, constructive dialogue.”