Dave LeBlanc looks at a struggling Massachusetts department and politics.
I think that most of us would agree that as much as it shouldn’t be, politics are an integral part of public safety. Maybe not where the rubber meets the road, but certainly any fire chief today must be able to clearly and articulately state his case and advocate for his department with the various politicians he reports to. Furthermore, various fire service organizations must have political savvy so that they can convince the politicos to support their goals and needs.
Then along comes a city like Lawrence, Massachusetts. A smaller city of 80,000 people, Lawrence is a mill town trying to survive in a time where manufacturing has gone elsewhere and the economy is not healthy. But Lawrence has been struggling for years. It is a city where the median income is approximately $25,000 and there are approximately 11,000 people per square mile.
The Lawrence Fire Department is like many others across the country. Short staffed and overworked, they do their best with the least. In the 80’s and 90’s Lawrence faced an arson spree. Hundreds of fires were fought and the State Police and ATF had a task force set up in the city to try and stop the fires. Meanwhile firefighter jobs were being cut and mutual aid was becoming the band aid to keep the city from burning to the ground.
Fast forward to 2010, more Lawrence firemen have been laid off, only this time the Mayor decided to go on vacation as the pink slips were handed out. So while William Lantigua was back in the Dominican Republic, 23 more fireman were laid off and three more fire stations were closed. Eagle Tribune These layoffs brought the Lawrence Fire Department to an on duty shift of 13 to 15 firemen to protect a city of 80,000 residents. It should be noted that Mayor Lantigua has been surrounded by controversy since he took office. 1st he refused to resign as State Representative, saying he could perform both jobs. 2nd he went to Beacon Hill to fight for a 35 million dollar bailout plan for the city. But his plan was not without its detractors and many felt the state should take over the city rather than bail it out. Boston.com
During the good mayor’s vacation, several serious fires occurred resulting in the fire department being taxed well beyond its new limited capability and mutual aid being used extensively. His Assistant Mayor or Chief of Staff was quoted in the News as saying Mutual Aid did not cost the Towns that were providing it anything, as they have been providing it all along. One fire chief was quoted as saying his personnel costs since July 1, 2010 for responding to Lawrence were over $3500.
Upon Willy’s return from vacation he immediately went on the offensive. He stated he had received “dozens” of complaints that Firemen were “dogging it” when responding to calls. He said he was going to have volunteers with cameras follow the firemen to see “where they go and what they do”. He also said he was going to investigate the current spate of fires as he found their timing “interesting”. And that he would turn his findings over to the US Justice Department if he found any “wrongdoing”. NECN.com
The good Mayor later changed his statement to say he was not having the firemen followed, but advising people that called to complain to video tape anything they thought was being done wrong. He did not back away from his implication that he felt the recent fires were the work of firemen. All of this leads us to today’s story. The mayor is now blaming the recent increase in mutual aid use on the Lawrence Firefighters Union. In 10 words or less, and that was about all he used, Willy said that if the Union had given up their 3.5% pay increase, he could hire back 4 or 5 of the 23 that were laid off. Boston Channel.com The line from hiring back one per shift, to not needed Mutual Aid is a blurry one.
Unfortunately this is a problem that more departments are going to face, and while they may not have a mayor like Slick Willy Lantigua, in may not make much of a difference.
There is no doubt that the mayor’s actions and statements are inflammatory to say the least. He has taken the “easy” way out by blaming the firemen of Lawrence, because he didn’t get his way during negotiations. Rather than addressing the real issue, Willy is choosing to use smoke and mirrors. While there are tough decisions for everyone to make during these economics times, why is it always the responsibility of the fire department to fix their staffing and budget issues. People love to shower the brothers with praise when they do a good job, but when the economy is good they aren’t showering them with pay raises, and when the economy is bad the first ones on the list for cuts are the firemen.
At the end of the day what are the real issues here. 15 brave firemen are at work each day protecting a City of 80,000. Lawrence’s budget woes aren’t going to change anytime soon. The surrounding towns cannot, and should not continue to subsidize the Lawrence Fire Department through mutual aid. Mutual aid is about towns helping each other, not a one sided equation of take. The Mayor of Lawrence would rather send volunteers to video tape “allegations” then tackle the real issue of finding the money to properly staff his Fire Department.
And one final question, when the finger pointing stops and someone is killed, who is going to step up and be responsible then?
Mayor Lantigua defends timing of his vacation, Eagle Tribune, 13 August 2010
Outcry threatens Lawrence bailout, Boston.com, 9 February 2010
Lawrence Mayor and Firefighters face-off, NECN, 13 August 2010.
Blame Game Begins In Firefighter Crisis, WCVB, 17 August 2010
Lawrence Firefighters Local 146 Union