(Editor’s note: This is the eighth in a series of reports about the new city of Central Falls, now clear of bankruptcy and proceeding anew to provide for its residents. Robert E. Bradley Jr. is the city’s first permanent fire chief since 2010.)
CENTRAL FALLS -- During the dark days of the bankruptcy, Fire Chief Robert E. Bradley Jr. saw his force of firefighters dwindle.
Some retired, but most left for jobs in other fire departments in communities that were more financially stable. “We lost seven or eight firefighters throughout the bankruptcy,” Bradley said. “Most were younger, looking for more job security, and they left because there were a lot of unknowns here.”
Pension cuts, changes in health care coverage, concern about the future of the city itself, all added to the overall uncertainty that marked those dark days. “It was very difficult,” the chief said.
Of course, in spite of the drop in manpower, in spite of any gnawing anxiety about the city’s fate, the work of the Fire Department had to continue unabated. The department works around the clock, on staff 24 hours a day, answering 5,000 calls each year including about 3,500 rescue runs.
In time – but it took some time – Bradley realized that what had been “a dilemma at first” became an “opportunity,” as the department eventually benefited from the “new blood” and “the exceptional young firefighters” who joined the force to replace those who left. It set up what for Bradley is an exciting scenario – a chance to have the newcomers all trained the same way and to incorporate the new ideas they can bring to the department.
You see, the chief loves training. His eyes light up and he becomes more animated as he talks about the benefits of training firefighters – and he puts his money where his mouth is, often taking part in classes where he is the trainee, as well as classes where he is the trainer.
“We learn something new all the time from training,” Bradley said. “That’s why I push the guys to go into training, because you come back with different ideas to do the same job.” After a while, anyone “gets rusty” doing the same thing over and over, he suggested, “and we must stay as sharp as possible.” Training on a regular basis makes the proper response “automatic,” he said, and “eliminates second-guessing.”
When it comes to firefighting and Central Falls, Bradley knows what he is talking about. A city native and resident who now lives on Hunt Street, he has been a Central Falls firefighter for 26 years, sworn in Aug. 14, 1987. He rose through the ranks, becoming a lieutenant in 2001, captain in 2006, battalion chief in 2010 and finally department chief on Jan. 4 of this year, an appointee of the new mayor, James Diossa.
The oldest of six children, he comes from a family with a history of public safety service. His father, Robert E. Bradley Sr., was the city’s deputy police chief for many years, retiring in the mid-1970s, and his brother, Steven, is currently a captain with the city police force. He has another brother, Michael, attached to the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan.
The fire chief graduated from St. Raphael’s Academy, Pawtucket, and holds associate’s degrees in fire science from Community College of Rhode Island and in computer programming from New England Institute of Technology.
In addition to in-house training, Bradley and city firefighters at various times have taken classes offered by the Rhode Island Fire Academy in Exeter, at fire academies in other states such as Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Hampshire, and at the National Fire Academy in Maryland. They also keep a sharp eye out for any special training classes taking place at other local fire departments in the state and will sign up for those, too, when appropriate, Bradley said.
Bradley holds National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) certifications in fire prevention, training operations, strategy and tactics, among other things, and is NFPA certified as an instructor and safety officer. He also is an emergency medical technician (EMT, cardiac level), a hazardous materials technician and an instructor with the Rhode Island academy.
There is one special trainee that Bradley worked with, who never became a member of the Fire Department but whose training exercises were memorable: Diossa.
The chief said his department routinely offers City Council members the chance to spend a day in training, but almost no one takes advantage of it. Diossa was one of the very few who did, back when he was a councilman. “We put him through the paces of what a firefighter would go through,” Bradley said. They had the future mayor equipped with an air pack, lugging hoses and crawling through an abandoned building filled with machine-made smoke. “He was very tired at the end of the day,” Bradley said.
“I love his enthusiasm about the city,” the chief said of the mayor. “He wants to bring the city back and it’s really contagious when he comes around, smiling all the time. He’s got that ability to kind of pull people in.”
Bradley and the mayor are currently discussing ways to finance badly-needed apparatus for the Fire Department, in particular a new aerial ladder truck to replace the 23-year-old vehicle still in use. “It’s starting to break down due to wear and tear,” the chief said.
The problem is that brand-new ladder trucks cost between $750,000 and $1 million – a big bill for a little city just out of bankruptcy. Yet, a ladder truck is a necessity because the city has its share of tall buildings, most of them elderly high-rises such as the 10-story Forand Manor on Washington Street. “We’re exploring the possibility of grants or lease/purchase,” Bradley said.
Meanwhile, he is delighted with the arrival just last week of a brand new rescue truck, purchased at a cost of “just under $200,000,” he said, and equipped with the most-modern technology including provisions for cardiac care. “I had our EMTs design it, to make a truck that would work the best for them,” the chief said. “It is completely up to date, with all the latest equipment.”
The department has two rescue trucks, one in use every day and one reserved for back-up. Bradley explained the rescue is exceptionally busy because it is used to repay the many mutual-aid calls other departments provide to the city in the case of major incidents, such as the chemical blaze June 24 at General Polymer Inc. on Foundry Street.
Bradley cannot say enough about the benefits of mutual aid and the generous support received from neighboring departments on a regular basis, particularly from Cumberland, Lincoln and Pawtucket. At the General Polymer fire, for instance, fire crews from as far away as Coventry, North Providence and even Sutton, Mass., responded, along with the Woonsocket Fire Department HazMat team that Bradley called “fantastic.” “It’s really a big brotherhood,” he said of mutual aid. “All you have to do is ask.”
Besides his apparent love of firefighting, Bradley has another passion that one would not readily assume would be within the purview of a fireman from the state’s smallest city: he’s been playing bagpipes for 15 years.
Eleven years ago, with colleagues from Pawtucket and Central Falls, Bradley co-founded the Rhode Island Professional Firefighters Pipes and Drums, a 45-member all-volunteer group of bagpipers, drawn from area fire departments. The group plays at formal events such as promotion ceremonies, inaugurations, parades and funerals. “I’ve made some great friends. It’s one of the best organizations I’ve ever been part of,” Bradley said. “That’s actually my stress relief.”
Bradley, 52, with a salary of $71,000, is the Fire Department’s first permanent chief since Rene Coutu, who died in 2010. Coutu had been chief since 1988. The chief’s position was eliminated by receiver Robert G. Flanders Jr. in 2011 in an effort to save money, but Diossa brought it back this year.