PROVIDENCE - Superior Court Judge Bennett R. Gallo ruled that there was no public safety risk to firefighters or residents in Woonsocket as a result of the removal of Ladder Truck 1 and the reduction of the minimum amount of firefighters on duty from 26 to 23 on Wednesday afternoon.
It marked the end of a trial that has drawn on for the past 2 1/2 months.
He said that the plaintiff, Local 732, did not prove immediate, irreparable harm was caused by the removal of Ladder Truck 1 and the reduction in firefighting staff. Therefore, he would not grant an injunction to put Ladder 1 and its three man crew back on permanent duty.
“On the evidence presented,” said Gallo, “I’m unable to discern any measurable decrease in the firefighting capabilities of the Woonsocket Fire Department or any increase risk to the firefighters of Woonsocket or to the public regarding,” the removal of Ladder 1 and the reduction in manpower.
Daniel Kinder, the primary lawyer for the city, stated in his closing remarks that the experience of the past three months proved that safety was not a concern. He said that since the policy to remove Ladder 1 from service whenever less than 26 firefighters reported for duty was implemented on January 30, there has been no firefighter injuries, no change in firefighter response times, no harm to the public and no harm to any mutual aid firefighter.
“Speculative injury can not form the basis of an injunction,” said Kinder.
The policy was put in place to save the city an estimated $250,000 over six months, according to Mayor Leo Fontaine.
Much of Local 732’s argument was based on speculation that injury might occur to firefighters or to the public due to slow response times from mutual aid companies, incompatible equipment such as breathing apparatus and radios and the possibility that a Rescue Intervention Team, which was one of the main responsibilities of Ladder 1, might not be available to rescue a downed firefighter.
“An arbitrator who’s going to hear this can’t go backwards in time to send Ladder 1 to the fire that could have used them,” said the union’s counsel, Marc Gursky. Gursky was referring to the fact that an arbitrator who handles collective bargaining disputes won’t be able to account for safety concerns.
However, Judge Gallo did not see any safety concerns in this issue. He remarked that Woonsocket remains one of the two best-staffed fire departments in the state and that they can always call for mutual aid if a second ladder truck is needed. He noted that the actual ladder on Ladder 1 was only used for 35 hours in 2010. He agreed that for a city facing a financial crisis that this was a prudent cut.
“If we had an engine and a ladder on every corner in Woonsocket, it would be great,” said Gallo, “I’m sure it would lessen the risk on everyone, but if we put them on every other corner are we doing irreparable damage, are we exposing firefighters to risk? I don’t think so.”
“I don’t think the plaintiffs [Local 732] have made the case to grant them an injunction in this court,” said Gallo.
After the proceedings the 10 firefighters that had gathered to listen to the verdict kept their heads up despite the decision.
“We respect the judge’s decision,” said Local 732 President Christopher Oakland, but “We’re disappointed that the Chief and Public Safety Director would put safety of firefighters and citizens in jeopardy.”
The decision would not affect how Woonsocket’s firefighters do their job, according to Oakland.
“We’re professional firefighters, we’ll do the best we can with the resources we have,” said Oakland.
Mayor Leo Fontaine was pleased that Judge Gallo ruled that there was no safety risk posed to the city by cutting out Ladder 1 and lowering the minimum manning number to 23 firefighters. He said he hoped that future policy could be implemented after face-to-face negotiations with the union.
“It’s unfortunate we found ourselves in this situation at all,” said Fontaine. “I think we’ll all be better off sitting around a negotiating table rather than sitting around a court room. I hope [the administration] and the firefighters can find a mutual solution.”
Fontaine said these were the primary cuts from the firefighters’ budget for this fiscal year, but that for the next fiscal year he hopes to change shifts to a 24-hour schedule, which he has said may include a .
Fontaine and the firefighters’ union are currently in negotiations on a new contract. They will be having their next session sometime next week.
“We’re not out of the woods with regards to the fiscal crisis,” said Fontaine.