PAWTUCKET — Hundreds of firefighters filled the sidewalk along Roosevelt Avenue from Exchange Street to Slater Mill Wednesday, protesting a proposal to privatize the city's rescue service.
Inside City Hall at the time were companies who submitted requests for proposals to do the rescue work. They were there to attend a “mandatory meeting” with city officials to discuss their bids.
Robert Neill, president of the city's firefighters union, IAFF Local XXXX, said the picketing was timed to “discourage those people” and make them aware that the might “run into a possible labor dispute.”
Four potential vendors attended the meeting, the mayor's office said.
Joining the Pawtucket firefighters, Neill said, were members of 34 IAFF-represented fire departments from across the state. He said there was at least on member from each of those departments “and some sent 20 or 30.”
Neill told The Times that firefighters in Pawtucket have been providing fire-based rescue service since the early 1970s.
He notes that rescues are sent out on fire calls, and the men on the rescue are able to assist with some firefighting chores as well as being on the scene if a victim is found at the scene of a fire and other emergency.
By the same token, he said, one of the city's six engine companies go out on rescue calls, and, being trained at various levels as emergency medical technicians, can provide first aid or other assistance until one of the city's two rescues arrive. He asserted that a “single roll” rescue isn't going to provide personnel with that kind of training.
Under the privatization plan proposed by Councilor Christopher O'Neill, the union head said, Pawtucket's two rescue units would be shut down and the men re-assigned to firefighter duties. “I can't understand why he thinks that is going to save money,” he said, because the firefighters' contract has a staffing clause that requires 31 men on a platoon on any given day, for firefighter safety and to meet other protocols. “I don't think it's going to mitigate any overtime, I don't see where he is coming from.”
Neill said the city could lose about a million dollars in revenue that the rescue service charges Medicare and other insurance company.
Co-pays to local residents are waived by arrangement, he said. A private rescue service, he contends, would get the insurance payments and would almost surely charge the co-pay to those who call for help.
“We just think residents aren't going to get the bang for the buck they think they are going to get” by privatizing, Neill said.
In a statement released Wednesday afternoon, Mayor Donald Grebien's office said, “At the request of the City Council, the city is conducting a request for proposals (RFP) process to determine what savings, if any, might result from outsourcing city rescue services.
The RFP process, in what is a sound business practice, will help provide us with a cost analysis of what rescue services cost taxpayers now and what they might cost if provided by outside vendors.
“Whatever the RFP process determines,” Grebien said, “I want to make very clear that this administration will not support any proposal that results in a compromise of public safety, or any undue cost burden to our residents, particularly our seniors, who deserve and have a right to expect their services will be maintained at a high level. Any assertions to the contrary are simply not based on fact.”
Nonetheless, the mayor added, “The City of Pawtucket is now at a financial crossroads where, if we do not get our fiscal house in order, we run an unacceptable risk of being forced by the state into bankruptcy and losing control over our own future. My administration will continue to look at every responsible option, including new ways of doing things, and not avoid the difficult decisions that may be necessary to make sure that does not happen.”