October 1, 2007

The Providence Firefighters' Teach-In: Paul Doughty Speaks

Carroll Andrew Morse

Yesterday afternoon, following a statewide Homeland Security drill, the Providence Firefighters' Union (Local 799) held a teach-in on the steps of Providence City Hall. The purpose of the teach-in was to highlight the situations of Providence firefighters Jay Briddy, James Petersen, and Steven Schora, who have not been medically cleared to perform a full range of active duties due to cancer-related issues, but are not being allowed by the city to claim a cancer disability. Earlier in the week, Local 799 had planned an informational demonstration to run concurrently with the Homeland Security drill to bring attention to this situation, but altered their plans when the job-action threatened to severely curtail the training exercise. The president of Local 799, Paul Doughty, began the teach-in by explaining his union's position on the disability issue and on the choice of methods for bringing attention to it…

Local 799 President Paul Doughty: My name is Paul Doughty, President of the Firefighters Local 799. On behalf of all Providence firefighters, and particularly those of our brothers who are engaged in another kind of fight, the fight against cancer, I am proud to welcome you to this first of its kind of teach-in. I'd like to introduce, to my left, Captain Jeff Varone and Lieutenant Mike Morse, and to my right, firefighter Jim Petersen, firefighter Jay Briddy, and Lieutenant Steve Schora.

Before we begin our exchange on the issue at hand, which is the manner in which the City of Providence has chosen to ignore its firefighters afflicted with cancer, I'd like to clarify once more for the record the evolution of this event. Evolution is the best word I can come up with to describe our thinking, as we moved from the idea of a demonstration at the site of today's Homeland Security drill, to a post-drill teach-in at City Hall. Over the past 72 hours, many people have attempted to describe our change in plan as some sort of defeat. Nothing could be further from the truth. All along, our intention has been to take advantage of the intense media interest in the drill to hammer home our position on the tragic unfairness of the city's policy on cancer care for its firefighters.

It was never our intention to negatively impact the drill itself. Anyone who would have you believe anything to the contrary is misinformed.

Let me put it another way. Providence firefighters did not step back from their original plan to demonstrate. Rather we stepped forward, to a more refined and what we hope is a more effective method. In doing so, we're able to simultaneously support the drill and make our point here and now. I have no doubt whatsoever that many people are bitterly disappointed that the confrontation in which they had invested so much political capital has vanished and in its place, there has arisen an opportunity to communicate, teach and learn. I have no doubt whatsoever that they would have preferred to continue to invoke the holiest of holies, homeland security, to demonize Providence Firefighters as individuals who would place their own interests over the safety and security of our country.

I have no doubt whatsoever that Mayor Cicilline intends to continue to use the members of the firefighters' union as rungs on his ladder to the statehouse. Well, we're sorry to disappoint you Mayor, but you will not be allowed to mischaracterize our goals and actions any longer. We're sorry that we've denied you the opportunity to make political hay by spinning this issue cynically and unconscionably for your own political benefit. Mayor Cicilline, you may think you hold the high ground, but no ground is higher than moral high ground.

Firefighters have continuously demonstrated their wholehearted commitment to homeland security, not only in drills, but in real events. The smoke had not yet cleared when dozens of Providence firefighters voluntarily responded to New York City to participate in rescue and recovery efforts. The water had not yet receded when dozens of firefighters, again of their own choice, responded to the aftermath of hurricane Katrina to begin rescue and recovery efforts.

Throughout the years, since the words "homeland security" were introduced to our vocabulary, Providence firefighters have stepped up and led, not only this department and this state, but parts of this country, in training and preparedness. Actions, not words, define our commitment to homeland security. Don't you dare try to depict Providence firefighters as being less than wholly committed to the security of the United States. Don't you dare try to paint our insistence at protecting our brother firefighters from cancer as petty, unreasonable and unjust.

This fight, from the beginning, was about three members that were about to be forced off the job. One of those three members has cancer at this minute. In our mind, this is unconscionable. We had begun discussions in June of this year. The city turned their back both on the discussion and on this firefighter and they were prepared to send him out. If not for our actions this week, they would be on that path.

Again I'll repeat, we wanted to highlight the event. We needed the event to go on. Otherwise, I can't imagine how many people would be here today, if we had only sent out a press release saying there's an issue about three firefighters who have cancer.

We hope that the entire state takes notice of this unjust treatment, a situation where two firefighters, one from another community, and one from Providence, could be doing the same exact activity, both going into a hazardous material incident, much like what was simulated next door to here today. If they both contracted cancer, the one from the other community would be covered, and the one from Providence would not be covered.

And that's our story.

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Thank you, Andrew for attending yesterday's event. Mayor Cicillini, Governor Carcieri, John Dipietro and scores of irate citizens were given their chance to speak on the issue; and speak they did, yet none called Local 799 for clarification. The number is in the book. They didn't show up yesterday to hear the truth. I was asked to sit at the forefront to answer any and all questions concerning our position. Nobody asked.

It seems everybody had an opinion and couldn't wait to share it, God forbid they put a little effort into anything before they spoke. A mistake on our part, planning to demonstrate during an important drill, was corrected when we realized in wasn't a very good idea. I wonder if anybody will retract their inflamatory comments concerning this event. I'm not holding my breath.

This was political gamemanship at it's worst. Our supposed leaders should be ashamed of the way they acted. Communication is key, they made no effort to learn anything.

Again, thanks to Andrew for taking the time to come to Providence and talk to Paul Doughty and see for himself just what was going on.

Posted by: Michael at October 1, 2007 9:56 AM


Thanks for the kudos.

If I may make one minor observation, if nobody asked you or Capt. Varone anything in person, it may have been because the people who were there believed that Amanda Milkovits had already put the panel through an appropriately tough round of questioning, during the "formal" question and answer session.

Posted by: Andrew at October 1, 2007 10:17 AM

That she did. All good questions. I really didn't mind that nobody asked me any questions, the whole thing was about the guys battling cancer.

Posted by: michael at October 1, 2007 11:12 AM
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