Safe Station, sick time, PTSD, contract concessions, and firefighting in the era of opioids

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Manchester firefighters responding to an overdose call in Aug. of 2017. Photo/Jeffrey Hastings

MANCHESTER, NH – Jeff Duval says the leadership of IAFF Local 856 is disappointed in Chief Dan Goonan’s decision to reduce staffing and shift apparatus among stations to help control overtime spending.

“When we were talking about this last week, he didn’t tell me he was doing this. Although he did tell me his OT budget was tracking high, I was disappointed when I got the memo Thursday night,” says Duval, who is president of the firefighters union.

Duval said that rolling station closures would make more sense than “a shell game of moving apparatus,” which he says has created unsafe working conditions for firefighters, and jeopardizes the overall safety of the city.

Prior to Goonan’s decision, Duval on behalf of the union informed the chief that, as of Thursday, firefighters would “no longer fix and/or repair air pack harnesses, belts, batteries or any other part of the air pack that needs repair,” while on duty, suggesting that the fire department could hire personnel to come in off-duty to make repairs at a rate of time and a half.

On Saturday Goonan initiated a plan for reduced staffing which he says allowed him to cover all open positions by reducing staff of most of the four-man companies to three. He also moved  Rescue 1 from its centralized downtown position to Station 9, and Engine 7 was moved to cover other vacancies, overall, representing a 20 percent reduction in engines in service.

On Monday, Goonan reacted to Duval’s criticism.

“I am doing my best to balance the safety of the citizens of Manchester and the safety of my firefighters while addressing my budget concerns. If I had not implemented the changes I made, I would have needed to close three fire stations Sunday to address vacancies, which would have been absolutely unacceptable. I am very disappointed to be forced to make these decisions. I am in a lose-lose situation for sure,” Goonan said.

As explained to the Mayor and Board of Aldermen, Goonan cited an unprecedented increase in call outs, long-term sick leave and an increase in vacation and vacation buy-backs, which has left his $1.3 million annual overtime budget nearly half spent just three months into the new fiscal year.

Goonan says he does not want to have to consider layoffs, and is taking steps to bring overtime spending back on track.

Rescue 1 parked at Station 9 on Sept. 23. Under normal circumstances, Rescue 1 is centrally located for quicker access to all parts of the city. Photo/Jeffrey Hastings

‘The Machine is Working’

Duval also addressed on Monday an internal memo obtained by the InkLink, which was sent by union vice president Robert Stemska to membership on Sunday. Stemska wrote: “Today has been a busy day for the Leadership. We have fielded many calls and text [sic] on this Sunday.  Let me just say, the machine is working. Our Chief has been forced to make changes to manpower that are far less than ideal….”

Duval says the phrase “the machine is working” has been misinterpreted.

“That was meant for our membership, and what we were trying to do was to keep our membership informed that ‘the machine’ – which is their leadership – was continuing to work daily on getting a contract settled. We continue to work with Chief Goonan in good faith – unfortunately we have no faith in the city,” Duval said. “It’s a sad set of circumstances we’re all facing.”

He emphasized that union leadership has not directed firefighters to take part in a “sick out” as a job action. But neither has union leadership urged membership to hold off on taking non-essential sick time.

“We will be talking today about a few things today, but overtime is not something we’ve addressed with membership at this point,” Duval says. “There could certainly be other people urging members to take sick time, and to be blunt, that can happen when morale is low. Chief Goonan knows guys are being burnt out by Safe Station, and I know he’s looking at a grant just to help fund Safe Station, but the International Association of Fire Fighters has been talking about PTSD for more than a year. The chief has even talked to us about that,” Duval says.

In response to Duval’s comments about his faith in the city to negotiate a fair contract, Mayor Joyce Craig said, “Our firefighters risk their lives to keep our residents safe. Manchester firefighters deserve a fair contract, as do all other city employees. And the city is committed to working toward a fair and equitable contract for our firefighters, for other city and school district employees and for city taxpayers.”

Stemska on Sunday said that working conditions, including low morale and the increased traumatic scenarios firefighters faced, were likely root causes of the current spike in call outs. Goonan said over the weekend he hired 50 total shifts for coverage on Friday and Saturday, something he can’t recall ever having to do before.

Normally, he gets one or two weekend sick calls, depending on the time of year.

Safe Station began in Manchester and has extended to other community fire stations to increase access to recovery and reduce the number of overdose deaths. Photo/Carol Robidoux

Safe Station and a new era of fire service

By comparison, Nashua Fire Chief Brian Rhodes said on Monday that his overtime budget is right on track – despite the fact that Nashua has been operating Safe Station for just under two years. He also noted his firefighters have a contract in place that is good through July of 2019, and overall, “they’re happy.”

But Rhodes did acknowledge that working conditions for city firefighters in the age of the opioid epidemic is a new kind of animal.

“There are new studies out there, from the International Association of Fire Fighters and International Association of Fire Chiefs, working collaboratively on the PTSD issue, as well as the cancer issues,” Rhodes says. “You know it may be there are more firefighters struggling, or it may be that society has changed and, years ago, where people maybe wouldn’t have said anything or dealt with their experiences differently, today they’re speaking up. The members of fire departments, police departments and EMS are no different than our military, in some respects, when it comes to some of the things they see on the job. Some of the things we see on a daily basis aren’t good, and aren’t normal. For years and years our military hasn’t addressed the problem of PTSD, and they’re finally attempting to do that now. So are first responders.”

Rhodes says he utilizes the services of the Granite State Critical Incident Stress Debriefing Team as needed, an organization formed 26 years ago to “meet the needs of first responders statewide in the event of a critical incident.” Members include first responders and mental health professionals. The team is affiliated with the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation (ICISF), and they recognize that symptoms of PTSD are found in up to 15 percent of law enforcement personnel, and up to 30 percent of those working in fire suppression.

“Whenever we have an incident that we feel is out of the ordinary we call them up and they come down and we offer that to people who were at that particular incident,” says Rhodes. “Some people will sit through the talk, some won’t, some will say I’m fine, some will internalize a lot of their feelings and not let them out. Again, it’s all voluntary. We can’t make people do it, but we offer it and we’ve offered it more in the last three to four years than we ever have.”

Nashua Fire Chief Brian Rhodes speaking at the launch of Nashua’s Safe Station in Nov. of 2016. Photo/Jeffrey Hastings

Firefighters will respond, one way or another

As for the toll the heightened response during the opioid epidemic is taking on his firefighters, Rhodes says he become a fan of the Safe Station approach.

“Let’s face it – we are going to be involved in this epidemic one way or another. One way is responding to emergency calls and resuscitating people with Narcan and doing CPR.  The other way is we open our fire stations and have someone with an addiction problem come to see us. Personally, I would rather have my employees inside my building where it’s safe, well-lit and comfortable, and people are coming to us because they want help, rather than sending them out to apartment buildings where we don’t know who’s behind a door, or dark alleys where they may be illegal activity going on,” says Rhodes.

“Rather than seeing people on death’s doorstep with small children in the room, Safe Station allows us to see that people are finding their way to the next step. It goes back to why do people become first-responders – it’s their urge to help people. Honestly, it was becoming frustrating to see the same people over and over on OD calls,” Rhodes says.

After learning about the success of Manchester’s Safe Station, Nashua Mayor Jim Donchess asked then fire Chief Steven Galipeau what it would take to get Safe Station up and running in Nashua.

“The three of us sat down and realized it would take training our people to understand what addiction is, what the cause of it is, what recovery looks like. We had to learn how to talk to someone in recovery – what words to you say, or don’t say. When these people come in they’re literally struggling to stay alive, and crying out for help,” Rhodes says.

Efficiency and Humanity

Safe Station has helped his firefighters see the humanity in those who are suffering, says Rhodes.

“What does it do for us here? Our people get to see that there are people who want help, who want out of addiction. They get to treat people like human beings, and then, with the warm handoff to Harbor Homes, they get to see something good happen,” he says.

In terms of response time, Safe Station has proven to be an efficient way to respond to the drug crisis, Rhodes says.

“One of our concerns when we first talked about Safe Station was how do we assure the citizens of Nashua that we’ll be here for them when they call and not tied up with some person from out of town who came here to seek help from drug addiction,” says Rhodes. “From day one we had an agreement with Harbor Homes, that 15 minutes would be the maximum amount of time one of our companies could be out of service. We’re close to two years in now and we’re underneath the 11-minute mark. So put that into context: If we didn’t have Safe Station, and if we were just responding to overdose calls, we’d probably be out of service 20-25 minutes handling that call.”

IAFF Local 856 president Jeff Duval, left, and District Fire Chief Brendan Burns, right, who through the firefighters union give back to the community through initiatives including Operation Warm, which delivers hundreds of coats to kids each winter. File Photo

Duval says he wholeheartedly agrees with Rhodes’ assessment that there has been a cultural shift over the past decade that has redefined the duties of a city firefighter – and that may be what is making it harder to recruit. It also may be at the heart of why contract negotiations are stuck – perception of what it is to be a firefighter today, versus reality.

“I’m told we had 20 people who passed the recent fire service test, and of the people who passed, only six met the current criteria,” says Duval, which includes having at least some college-level certification in fire science.

“When I got into fire fighting more than 23 years ago, we had 300 taking the test, and of those, 125 qualified. To be honest, I think one of the main reasons is the change in the retirement system. I became a firefighter because I love the city of Manchester, and because my father-in-law was a firefighter. I had a degree in accounting, and when I learned about the benefits of being a firefighter, it was a big consideration, with two young kids to raise,” Duval says.

“Benefits packages have significantly changed, and when I hear the mayor say how other unions have made considerable concessions, six years ago we gave up time-and-a-half. That was significant. Maybe she doesn’t want to count that, but it counts,” Duval says.

Both Craig and Goonan have expressed optimism that a contract settlement is “very close.” Duval said he will know just how close following Tuesday’s meeting with the negotiating team.

“I thought we were pretty close until we had a meeting with Anthem last week, and new information was brought forth which may have set us back a little. By Tuesday we’ll have more information for the negotiating committee,” Duval says.


About this Author

Carol Robidoux

PublisherManchester Ink Link

Longtime NH journalist and publisher of Loves R&B, German beer, and the Queen City!