Fire Union, City Hall at Odds Over Assistant Chief Position

Fire Chief Christopher Leary and City Hall want to make the position exempt from civil service, but the firefighters union disagrees, with some questioning the need for additional management.

City administrators want to reinstitute a long-dormant assistant chief position in the and make it a non civil-service position, but the firefighters union disagrees with removing the position from civil service, with some firefighters questioning the need for additional management at all.

It isn't a new position. The city's ordinances establish an assistant fire chief within the department, but former Melrose Fire Chief John O'Brien—present at last Thursday's meeting of the aldermen's Appropriations Committee—said it hasn't been filled since the 1940s.

Mayor Rob Dolan told Boston.com that he and new Fire Chief Christopher Leary have tentatively selected current Fire Capt. Ed Collina for the job. Collina is currently the department's fire prevention officer and previously served as the Melrose Firefighters Local 1617 union president. He was also the other after .

However, making the position exempt from civil service requires a special act of the Legislature, meaning the city's administration first needs approval from the Board of Aldermen.

O'Brien first proposed resurrecting the position in 2007 and brought the idea to the union during negotiations, according to Leary's letter to the aldermen, and ultimately brought it to  the state Joint Labor Management Committee, which said that resurrecting the position should be dealt with solely at the local level.

Current, Past Chiefs Speak in Favor

At Thursday night's meeting, Leary told the aldermen that the assistant fire chief is "critically necessary" to assist him in the day-to-day operations of the department, including tasks under the Fire Prevention Office and EMS, and also overseeing and implementing an overhaul of the department's policies and procedures, a task Leary .

That would enable the chief to focus on the long-term vision for the department, Leary said, including budgeting, securing grants and guiding the department's transformation into an ambulance-based department, with the city's advanced life support (ALS) ambulance service targeted to start up within the next year.

"Any orgnanization that cannot change, they lose their ability to adapt, they become stagnant," he said, adding that the move intends to help the department evolve and be proactive.

O'Brien said the Fire Department has had a "tremendous problem" with promotion opportunities, adding that there is no one on the captains list awaiting promotion. Only on one lieutenant signed up to take the test last year, so the job of captain is now available to firefighters, with that civil service exam taking place in November and the list won't be certified until April 2013.

He added that after the 2005 accident that , a state report about the accident pointed out deficiencies that could be corrected through more oversight.

"With 24-hour shifts and the four groups, you need someone to oversee the whole operation," he said. "It has to be removed from civil service because you have to be able to put your own person in there. I understand the union position. But to move forward, you have to have someone who answers to you."

As an example of having an assistant who answers the chief, O'Brien relayed an anecdote from three-to-four years ago when he asked a firefighter for a doctor's note regarding his sick leave. Three days later, the firefighter told him that he gave the note to a captain, whom then told O'Brien he didn't have a right to the note.

"So who do you answer to? He said, 'I’m a union member.' That’s what I had to deal with," O'Brien said.

Union, Firefighters Dispute Need, Method of Filling Post

Melrose Fire Lt. Dan White, current president of the Melrose Firefighters Local 1617 union, told the aldermen that the union is in favor of adding an assistant chief to the department, but not in the method Leary and the administration are attempting to fill it.

White pointed out that on Feb. 14, the union and city agreed to a new contract—after having previously voting it down twice—after Mayor Rob Dolan removed the city's negotiation requests, but didn't budge on compensation. Within 90 days, however, White said the administration sought the union to impact bargain its fire prevention agreement and seven captains agreement.

Leary's letter to the aldermen said that the assistant chief's position would be paid for by not filling a seventh captain's position, presumably vacated by Collina, who is head of the Fire Prevention Office.

White said the union could not stress enough the importance of the fire prevention position, for both the city and firefighters. He also said the union does not agree or understand the justifications for removing the assistant chief position from civil service, saying that the city could appoint a provisional assistant chief until such time that a civil service test is given.

Leary also provided a draft of a possible job description for the assistant chief, and of the 12 "essential duties" listed, eight are currently performed by union members, White said, adding that the union has worked with the city over the past four and a half years to build a "climate of cooperation," but that should not be "mistaken for weakness.

"The chief's and administration's attempt to unilaterally negotiate our contract and backdoor our collective bargaining rights with this home rule petition is foul and the firefighters of Local 1617 ask that you do not support their efforts," White said.

Firefighter Bobby Farr, a 24-year veteran of the department, told the aldermen that due to the smaller size of the department with 54 members and the way duties are delegated to the seven captains, he did not believe an assistant chief is necessary at all. He also expressed concern about the Fire Prevention Office, which he said brings revenue into the city and citing liabilities the department has to deal with.

If the city does go forward with the position, however, Farr said he believes there should be a civil service exam for the position.

"I don't think the present chief should be able to appoint anyone because that’s a political thing," he said. "Bring forward the most qualified person. Also have a rescue exam, written exam, and see if we can get the number one guy for the job, if that’s the way this city wants to go."

Another firefighter, John Sands, said he's not against change—"I've been over there for 12 years; it’s been nothing but change"—but took issue with O'Brien's assertion about the accident involving Neil Sullivan being partly a result of lack of oversight.

"Neil Sullivan got injured because there weren’t enough firefighters," Sands said. "It had nothing to do with 'There weren’t enough people in charge.' If you want to make (the department) heavier, fine—give us our place at the table."

Union, City to Meet on July 6

All that said, many of the details surrounding how the position would be filled need to be bargained with the union, Melrose City Solicitor Rob Van Campen told the aldermen.

Among the issues at the bargaining table are leaving the seventh captain's position unfilled, any impact on the Fire Prevention Office or the department as a whole, the duties and responsibilities of the assistant chief, and even whether the assistant chief is a union position or not—as removing the position from civil service does not necessarily mean it becomes a non-union job.

The one issue that Van Campen repeatedly said is "not appropriate" for collective bargaining is whether the position is exempt from civil service, which he said gives Leary the ability to recommend a candidate for the position based on varying qualifications and not only the civil service exam score.

"That’s a question exclusively for this board to answer," he said.

Van Campen said the city is prepared to negotiate with the union over all the matters on the bargaining table, but that the union has "chosen only to have informal discussions with us at this time. We'd like to move the ball a lot quicker than is currently being pushed along."

He added that the city brought the proposal to the aldermen concurrently with attempts to negotiate with the unions in order to be as "efficient as possible," as the state Legislature ends formal session on July 31, meaning if the city doesn't send its petition to the Legislature before then and has it pass and signed by the governor, Melrose could end up waiting until the Legislature reconvenes formal session in January before the special act is voted on.

Melrose Human Resources Director Marianne Long echoed Van Campen's remarks about bringing the order forward to the aldermen for the sake of efficiency, adding that "there's a lot of other discussion and work that has to occur" regarding negotiations with the union.

"This is perhaps the first step amongst many," Long said.

"It’s important because as member of the mayor’s bargaining team, I want to clarify that the administration is in no way side-stepping or doing an end around (of collective bargaining) ... it’s not accurate, it’s an opinion—we fulfill our obligations," she added, which drew audible dissastifaction from the dozen or so firefighters present at the meeting.

Leary and Long also told the aldermen that besides wanting to fill the position based on criteria above and beyond a civil service exam score, the state does not currently have a civil service exam for assistant fire chief.

However, the state Office of Administration and Finance lists a civil service exam for a deputy fire chief. In a follow-up phone call on Friday morning, Long said that based on the Melrose Fire Department structure, a deputy chief would be a step below an assistant fire chief.

Leary said as an example, the Milton Fire Department has a chief and deputy chief, but do not have captains as Melrose does.

"It's individual to each department how the rank structure is devised," he said, adding that a deputy chief would be a three-bugle rank position—referring to the bugles worn on fire officers' collars—whereas the assistant chief would be four bugles. The chief wears five.

After hearing from both sides and a lengthy question and answer session, the Appropriations Committee unanimously voted to send the proposal forward to the full Board of Aldermen without a recommendation for passage. The full board is next scheduled to meet on July 16.


More »
Got a question? Something on your mind? Talk to your community, directly.
Note Article
Just a short thought to get the word out quickly about anything in your neighborhood.
Share something with your neighbors.What's on your mind?What's on your mind?Make an announcement, speak your mind, or sell somethingPost something
See more »