May 18, 2009

Municipal Increases Are Mainly Pay and Benefits

Justin Katz

This story on the likely decreases in state aid to municipalities appears to break apart two categories of spending that are very closely related (emphasis added):

Indeed, the numbers suggest that municipalities have largely avoided the budget cuts that swept across state government in recent years, according to a report to be released this week by the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council.

Since 2004, "the increase in local government expenditures has outpaced the growth in the state general fund budget, [the consumer price index], and personal income in almost every year," the report says. "The majority of this expenditure growth has been to support education spending, which accounts for the majority of local spending; however, spending on employee benefits is the second-fastest increasing component of municipal budgets."

In point of fact, most of the increase in education spending has gone toward employee pay and benefits. Treating education as its own all-inclusive category blurs the story. And that story relates to a point made later in the article:

The governor has introduced legislation to eliminate most of the mandates. But the Democrat-controlled Assembly has been reluctant to support the Republican governor's initiatives, most of which are opposed by organized labor.

Labor has the RI system structured so well in its favor, that there isn't much by way of reform that won't disrupt its schemes to some degree. Yet, they must be disrupted, and both union members and elected representatives must soften their opposition.

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The mandate the Governor proposes that directly affects me is the minimum manning provision. This mandate is in place exactly for situation we now find ourselves in, a struggling economy. Slashing manning for public safety looks tempting when under the proverbial gun; making the move illegal ensures proper manning levels in good times and especially bad.

This isn't a scheme, it is good government.

Posted by: michael at May 18, 2009 11:27 AM

Minimum manning is NOT a state mandate. Your Governor LIED to Rhode Islanders at the Ocean State Action event last month saying it is a state mandate. I challenge anyone to find it in statute. Minumum manning is negotiated through collective bargaining.

Posted by: skylar at May 18, 2009 11:42 AM


A question. Has anybody ever looked at the tradeoff between manning and the rational location of stations around the state, as might be accomplished if we had -- radical thought here -- a single state fire department (which would still be way smaller than, say, Maricopa or LA county). If you took a clean sheet of paper (a map, actually) and optimally located stations and units, and manned them all appropriately, could this lead to an overall reduction in fire department staff -- yielding improved fire protection for the taxpayers at a lower cost?

Of course, if this analysis hasn't been done, the cynic in me suspects why it has been blocked...

Posted by: John at May 18, 2009 11:46 AM

"Your Governor LIED to Rhode Islanders"

Funny how he's "your" Governor and Bush was "not my president", but now that Obama's in office, the Republicans should all unite with the Democrats and work together.

The lefties continue to amuse me.

Posted by: Patrick at May 18, 2009 12:12 PM

If you took a clean sheet of paper (a map, actually) and optimally located stations and units, and manned them all appropriately, could this lead to an overall reduction in fire department staff --

Chances are slim that existing stations would fit into a distribution scheme that anyone supporting this measure would accept.

So where's the money come from to buy the land and build the stations? What if there IS no land available for an "optimally placed" station in a particular location, for example in Providence? How do we decide who's neighborhood station stays open and who's closes? Coventry for example has 9 stations IIRC- do you think the residents there are going to just sit back and let someone who doesn't live there tell them that they need to lose their closest fire station?

Then you have the issue of moving department dispatch centers, which means moving the incoming fire alarm wiring from all over each city and town- an issue Warwick and East Greenwich are still trying to find a work-around for in their quest to consolidate dispatch.

Either way, you'd ultimately end up with dozens of currently-used fire stations being abandoned, many of them historical buildings that can't just be flattened and sold for condos or low-income housing. As we've already seen in Providence, the Historical Society would rather unused fire stations be vacant and ripe for arson than actually put to good use.

Posted by: EMT at May 18, 2009 12:44 PM


Eventually I believe what you propose will be reality. If we could redo things, strategically there are a lot of better ways to do it. Rt 95 was built long after most communities established fire departments. Providence has closed a lot of stations over the years, we once had 22 I think, now 14 and that was because of the invention of the fire engine which replaced the horse drawn pumpers.

In the meantime I can only attest for what I know, and that is we have barely enough people in Providence to do the job properly,

Posted by: michael at May 18, 2009 12:46 PM


In the fire service in RI regionalization could be part of an overall answer to lowering the cost of fire protection...but then again, maybe not.

First off there could not be a "single" fire department in the state. What about Aquidnick Island. Tiverton & Little Compton? Barrington, Warren & Bristol? Jamestown?

I think you get the picture, at least geographically.

What about the many towns that presently rely on Volunteer Fire Departments?

All these things need to be considered if anyone is to save tax dollars by this merge.

And none of this takes into consideration the urban departments which rely "HEAVILY" on the local knowledge of the firefighters of that community. Firefighters in Providence, for example, are a much different type of firefighter than those in Barrington, Smithfield or East Greenwich.

And then there is minimum staffing...

Minimum staffing is not a union trick to guarantee overtime or jobs. It is a health & safety issue for FF's and a safety issue for the public we serve. This is one area where I (and many of my brother FF's) will never budge voluntarily. We understand the ramifications.

If the general public made a "knowledgable" decission to sacrifice the safety of their families and their fellow citizens by cutting already dangerously understaffed fire departments even further in the name of tax savings it would be one thing. Politicians like the governor, however, lie to the public by stating that reducing the minimum staffing provisions in police and fire contracts will not effect public safety! THIS IS A TOTAL (AND KNOWING) LIE!!!

This type of intentional and self-serving misrepresentation of the facts is what many of our politicians are all about. We in public safety unions understand that. That is why we have these minimum staffing provisions written into our CBA's...for our protection and the public's protection.

Posted by: Tom Kenney at May 18, 2009 4:40 PM

Thank you for your answers. Very interesting and helpful. EMT, just as in the case of healthcare reform, I realize that sometimes long term savings require higher than normal upfront costs (e.g., in the case of healthcare for better I.T.). Tom, if you look at Maricopa, LA, NYC or Houston/Harris County -- to cite 4 very large counties served by one department -- they all have a wide range of neighborhoods, from suburban to central city highrise, older and newer structures, etc. Yet they find a way (through staffing and training) to ensure the preservation and teaching of the local knowledge we both agree is important to fire protection. If they can do this, so can RI. I think the volunteer issue is a bit of a red herring, since the change in RI's economy over the past 50 years has meant fewer and fewer people work in town any more to respond to daytime calls. In fact, doing away with, or minimizing the role of volunteer departments may be an inescapable part of a statewide solution.

However, before we start throwing up roadblocks, as a taxpayer, I'd first like to understand the underlying economics -- as I asked above, with optimal station locations and full manning, could we end up saving money in the long run while also improving fire protection? In my experience, if the size of the prize is large enough, people tend to find ways to overcome the implementation obstacles they face.

Posted by: John at May 18, 2009 11:51 PM


I believe, at least at this point, that the answer is no.

Let me explain. I spoke of the differences between a FF in Prov and a FF in the suburbs. The difference is huge in the type of calls, type of training & the type of experience. It is not so easy to train a FF in all aspects of firefighting. A firefighter from the suburbs would have a difficult time with a fire in a 3-decker or a highrise building. I would have a difficult time fighting a large brush fire or forestry fire.

Another aspect which would hinder this switch is that diferent departments in the state have diferent types of equipment that is not always compatable. This is more prevalent than most people realize...hose size, hydrant hook-ups, air-pacs, etc. So, while a more regionalized system could spell tax savings in the long run, I'm afraid that the short-term savings envisioned by many (which could help during this trying economic time) would be non-existant.

Also, "full manning" is a joke in this state. There is not a single fire department who currently has full staffing on their fire apparatus...not even Providence. And, almost every department in the state runs some of their fire companies with 2 men - some departments allow their trucks to run with 1 man!. Your idean of optimal locations for fire stations and fire companies would not cut out too many fire trucks, even if it reduced the number of fire stations. It would, however, require many more FF's to be on duty at any given time in the State of RI. This additional for the extra FF's would more than offset the savings of a few less stations.

The NFPA standard for "minimum staffing" of a fire apparatus is 4 men.

Posted by: Tom Kenney at May 19, 2009 1:03 AM

John, let's look at the Barrington/Warren/Bristol example that Tom brought up as an example.

Barrington, served by one career station and one volunteer station. Warren, 5 volunteer stations and one rescue station. Bristol, 3 volunteer stations and 1 rescue station.

Currently, each town by themselves can usually handle a typical structure fire by themselves (Barrington, with 5 firefighters on duty at a time, will pretty much always need more help).

But under a statewide distribution scheme, it's pretty likely that none of them will be found to have the call volume to support more than 1 or two stations at best. So now what happens? Each of them would need to pull, at a minimum, all of the firefighters from the other two towns, plus some, to tackle the average structure fire"

In other words, for example where today Bristol can take care of itself, under your plan a single standard structure fire would completely strip at least two other towns of their protection. With the three towns being isolated the way they are, getting them help is going to take awhile, and come pretty much solely from one direction.

Your plan gains day to day cost savings MAYBE, but lose critical efficiency in the one thing fire departments are ultimately supposed to do well- and all of our lives depend on it. Not a gamble I'm willing to take.

Posted by: EMT at May 19, 2009 9:32 AM

These are all good observations, but the reality is that a statewide fire-rescue department does make sense. For a large-scale merger, short-term cost savings are nonexistent. In fact, for good mergers to be completed, costs will go up temporarily for msotly capital items (making systems compatable, for example). However, this is not why we would merge departments: the long-term efficiencies gained by a single provider of these services, as well as the enhanced public safety that comes with a unified public safety command structure, would surely benefit the state and its citizens. A through review would have to take place before the merger to assess what assets are curretly in place in each town. This would include an audit of all equipment, compatability, or lack thereof with other towns and cities, and the placement of stations. There are many cases in which there are stations or plans for stations in close proximity to other municipalities, leading to current inefficiency. Middletown, for example, has proposed constructing a new station close to the Newport line, while Newport still has to respond to that part of the city from the headquarters in downtown. With a unified command structure put into place, a single Chief of Fire-Rescue would be able to put together the department, as well as absorb many of the safety/training functions of the State Fire Marshal's Office, thereby leading to further effciencies down the road.
The issue of volunteer departments is interesting, but would not be a deal-killer. Many volunteer departments with sizable call volume are looking to go paid and full-time, but do not have the local resources to do so. A consolidation of the 71 fire districts into one would help them and make these plans more economical. Additionally, with separate volunteer departments, each has their own set of operations and training standards - a unified department would change this and allow for firefighters to be better-trained and operate more effectively statewide. Also, the inefficiencies of towns operating separate fire and rescue agencies (trust me, I am a member of one of agencies in a town like this) would evaporate with one agency providing fire and rescue services - therefore, going to the NFPA standards on engine manning would be more possible, as the engine could go on more rescue calls (this is how Montgomery County, Maryland, added a fourth person to their engines - a condolidated paid/volunteer department, by the way). There is also the option of having some battalions operate with a paid staff with additional call-in firefighters, though it would have to be worked out in the labor contract, of course.
Finally, there are too many cases of large agencies serving rural, suburban, and urban areas to suggest that it would be impossible for there to be one agency providing these services here in Rhode Island. There would be a comprehensive statewide training program for all firefighters/EMTs, and statewide operations standards would be set. With that said, a consolidated agency would not require the removal of experienced staff, either in the cities or in the rural areas. The cost-efficiencies would come in the form of streamlined command staff, lower fixed and operating costs, and so forth, not by firing every other firefighter. That would not make sense: remember, a proposal such as this one is designed to cut costs (over time) but also improve services, a goal many in government lose sight of in times like these.

Posted by: Dan at May 19, 2009 11:05 AM


Your observations are legitimate, but I still don't see the overall cost savings. There is definately no savings short term, as you've acknowledged. On the long term, there may be a significant cost savings...but I'm not totally convinced of that fact. I'd have to see the actual numbers. I do concede, however, that there probably would be "some" long term savings.

As for you statement: "...the long-term efficiencies gained by a single provider of these services, as well as the enhanced public safety that comes with a unified public safety command structure, would surely benefit the state and its citizens." I disagree wholeheartedly with this presumption. I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the citizens of Providence would not gain any "enhanced public safety". On the contrary, the safety of the citizens of Providence would be significantly reduced under such a plan.

I am a 29-year veteran of the PFD and I cannot state that I know all the streets in the city or all the potential HazMat sites, etc. Your blanket assumption that there is no difference in urban and suburban firefighting is just that...your assumption. Also, the fact that other places have large county-wide departments combining rural and urban areas does not convince me of their effectiveness. Many departments nationwide (as well as many statewide in RI) run with 1 or 2 FF's per truck...does that mean that they're effective? No.

Believe me, my statements here regarding minimum staffing and the ineffectiveness of a statewide fire department have nothing to do with union benefits or perks. I will only be riding the trucks for another 2 years (max), so I would not be affected in the slightest. My fight about staffing and fire service coverage is simply an educated opinion on public safety!

New ways of saving tax dollars should always be explored...but not at the expense of public safety!

Posted by: Tom Kenney at May 19, 2009 12:54 PM

Also, the inefficiencies of towns operating separate fire and rescue agencies (trust me, I am a member of one of agencies in a town like this) would evaporate with one agency providing fire and rescue services

It doesn't make me very popular with most firefighters, but I actually prefer separate agencies for these important but unrelated functions. At worst, I can live with one agency controlling both functions so long as the EMS providers have no responsibility to be firefighters, nor trained as such.

Under either model, EMS rarely gets its due in a fire-based agency. But I digress.

For the record, there are more than a few volunteer departments that have decent call volumes, are not paid, and have no desire to be so.

As I said, yes there would probably be long-term economic savings under your plan... which would become obviously and painfully exposed as being completely inadequate after the first structure fire in a suburban or rural area.

Posted by: EMT at May 19, 2009 4:47 PM

I don't really see how a fire department that goes statewide would not be able to have firefighters who can fight fires in the city (if they are assigned there) or fight fires in a suburban or rural area (if they are assigned there). If anyone is implying that firefighters in Portsmouth can't fight a structure fire in a tall building (I wouldn't buy a condo in the Carnegie tower, then) than I don't see why any mutual aid agreements are necessary between towns - the suburban firefighters are not able to fight fires in a city, so why bother calling them? Just call every last Providence firefighter and after that, hope for the best? I think you guys are getting a little carried away with what only appears to be a turf war - suburban/rural vs. Providence. I just retired from my job - I was a safety inspector for a large company, so I know a bit about these things, even though I was never a firefighter. To me, if you have a HazMat certification in Hope Valley and you have a HazMat certification in Providence, you have the same certification. You may not have as much practical experience, but that will never be equitable in this state, unless we want it all to look like Providence with the same types of emergency calls. That said, the three regional HazMat teams for the state are Hope Valley, Woonsocket, and East Providence, so obviously the feds who doled out the funds for these teams were not too concerned with the perceived inabilities of rural/suburban departments.

Posted by: Bob at May 19, 2009 7:44 PM

Bob brings up several good points - I, too, cannot see why this can't happen. Being cynical, I would assume that labor would support such a move because then they would have a) more bargaining power, and b) be able to absorb volunteer agencies. I am not a big fan of labor on any given day, but when my wife needed the rescue it came, and in my town the fire department runs the rescue and they are paid. The service was fantastic, and quite frankly, as a taxpayer, I would be hard pressed to support there being a separate department for EMS and fire in my town - why need two? So we can invite a turf war between the two? There are few fires, thankfully, so the fire guys would just be sitting around doing (practically) nothing all day long. As EMTs, I hope that their training is supurb, and if it is not, than that has to be fixed, but I see no reason why fire and rescue cannot be together and I see no reason for this state to have 71 fire protection districts, as Dan pointed out.

Posted by: concerned islander at May 19, 2009 7:50 PM

Just as an aside as a taxpayer - I think that we should be properly staffing our fire trucks and ambulances. If any long-term savings generated by a large fire/rescue agency can be reinvested into the services they provide than I believe that would be the best result. I looked into that example that Dan talked about in his post. It was the example of how the Chief in Montgomery County, MD put a fourth guy on the engines so that they could respond to medical calls as well (and meet the national recommended staffing levels). He fought tooth and nail with the county government but won over their opinions because he proved that it is an added expense, but it improves services. This is the type of thing that we could get with a statewide fire/rescue department. I certainly don't see any department going to that on their own - they simply don't have the resources or necessary support.

Posted by: innocent observer at May 19, 2009 7:56 PM

Just for the record...Prov FF's are not better than Hope Valley FF's or any other FF's...just different types of skills and experiences.

If you want a "jack of all trades and master of none" type of FF to respond to whatever the call, wherever it may be then your plan will be just fine.

It WILL NOT improve the public safety level throughout the state, however. It will probably lessen public safety in most areas.

As for the 4th man on the fire apparatus, this is a firefighting staffing issue, not an EMS staffing issue.

I am not fighting this battle because of some self-serving motive, I'm merely stating the opinions of someone who has been in the fire service in RI for quite a long time. I have no axes to grind other than future firefighter and public safety.

Posted by: Tom Kenney at May 19, 2009 8:54 PM

I absolutely agree that firefighters in general are no better in Providence than any other place - that seemed to have been an insinuation of others who have posted. I still fail to see how a consolidated agency would endanger public safety - no argument yet proposed seems to be anything more than a subjective generality. I have lived in communities where there are much larger fire/rescue agencies and things have been just fine - so this sounds more like the classic Rhode Island way of "we can't do that because that would change the way we have always done things" - in other words, there is no logical argument against it. Are there issues to be addressed? Surely. Should FF/EMT safety always be considered when reorganizing agencies? Surely. If you are a firefighter, would you not want to be a part of a larger agency? Or is it because you are too comfortable at your current department you don't want to "rock the boat" and join a larger organization? That seems to me to be the only reason one would oppose a potential merger plan that has the potential, at the least, to improve services, devote even more resources to firefighting in a state that ranks near the top in spending on fire departments already, and, in the long run, potentially cut the various fixed and variable costs associated with running a large-scale organization.
Finally, the bit about the fourth man on the engine is exactly related to firefighting staffing - the reason it was justified in Maryland was because the engine would be sent on medical calls - as well as fire calls. The FF/EMT could do multiple things for different emergencies. This directly relates to several points previously made, including the one that separate fire/resuce agencies should not be merged together and that Rhode Island fire departments are so poorly-manned that a firefighter rides with one other person or sometimes alone to a fire (which I do not contend is incorrect, nor acceptable).

Posted by: Bob at May 19, 2009 10:38 PM

Putting medical providers on fire engines is not a solution to fire staffing or medical emergencies. Nor has it EVER been proven to improve pre-hospital medical care. In fact, there are numerous studies pointing to systems with a glut of ALS providers (ie most large fire-based systems) having worse patient outcomes than those with more limited numbers of providers whose individual performance can be closely monitored to ensure quality.

The city of Boston has one of the best EMS systems in the country (40%+ cardiac arrest save rate, for example), and one of the best fire departments in the country. Boston EMS and Boston Fire get along quite well, partially because neither one of them tries to do the other's job.

Each firefighter and paramedic is allowed to focus on their craft and be the best at it, without each person trying to be good at two extremely different jobs.

Why not combine the fire department and police department? Makes the same amount of sense, and you'd have the cost savings of one agency instead of two. Right?

Posted by: EMT at May 19, 2009 11:16 PM

Actually, now that I think about it... regionalizing EMS would be 10x easier than regionalizing fire. Austin/Travis County EMS, by way of example, covers an area served by 38 different fire departments (paid and volunteer, like RI) in the city of Austin and surrounding Travis County- 1,100 square miles total.

They are an excellent medically-focused agency with performance numbers comparable to Boston. Clearly, they have been able to excel in a widely spread area that would seem to have its own regiolaization issues related to public safety. The only thing that might get in the way is RI's geography, and the unwillingness of fire departments to lose run numbers.

Posted by: EMT at May 19, 2009 11:26 PM

Justin, Marc, et al:

Good conversation here, with more progress than I've seen in the General Assembly in a long time. Actually gives me a glimmer of hope (pretty rare these days) that reasonable people with a common goal of increasing the value taxpayers receive for their money -- and not just mindless cost cutting or union bashing -- can actually sit down and make progress on some tough issues. How can we take this the next step?

Posted by: John at May 20, 2009 12:21 AM

I think that last point EMT made was very important - Austin/Travis County is a great example of how regionalizing EMS works - and I can see how Fire and EMS, with solid organizations supporting them, can be separate and services can be top notch.

Small-town politics aside, I think it would definitely work here in Rhode Island, and it would improve pre-hospital paitent care by providing consistent services (ALS, I am assuming) to all communities. I am sure a little money would be saved too, down the line.

I also am very happy to see that our dialogue has been rather productive, unlike most that happen on Smith Hill.

EMT, Tom, others, thanks for your input, good observations, and points...

Posted by: Bob at May 20, 2009 7:38 PM

Tom Kenney writes: "Many departments nationwide (as well as many statewide in RI) run with 1 or 2 FF's per truck...does that mean that they're effective? No."


Aside from his Union-driven "educated opinion", what data / facts does Mr. Kenney have to support his assertion that less than 4 FFs per fire apparatus is "unsafe"?

More importantly, you all miss the larger point. The only reason we are having this discussion is because we are paying UNSUSTAINABLE pay and benefits.

If we paid our heroes a sustainable compensation package, which would include our Entitlement-minded Union members paying their fair share (e.g. 25%) of the cost of THEIR health-care, then we could afford more FFs.

Very simply, the Union's Entitlement-minded mentality has made optimal public safety cost prohibitive.

Said differently, we can't afford what Tom and EMT are selling.

Also, you gotta love the lack of long-term perspective. Tom & Co. acknowledge that there could be potential long-term savings, but it might have a short-term cost, hence we should not do it. And is there any wonder why RI is circling the drain?


Your old friend George Elbow.

PS - Tom, how'd you & the boys like that Pro-jo editorial today highlighting that FF's aren't even in the Top 10 most dangerous jobs? Sound familiar? Try not to lose sleep tonite over that.

Posted by: George Elbow at May 21, 2009 10:00 PM
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