By Hiroko Sato

MediaNews

GROTON -- Firefighters sometimes watch many minutes go by before heading out for an emergency call because they don't have enough manpower to respond. Thanks to the recently created shift policy, they have to wait for extra help to arrive, according to Fire Chief Joseph Bosselait.

Instituted by Town Manager Mark Haddad, the policy requires Bosselait to leave shift vacancies open unless the coverage level falls below three firefighters per shift. Firefighters say Haddad gave the directive to retaliate against them for filing a formal complaint about nonpayment of benefits promised under their union contract.

Haddad calls the claim baseless, insisting that he is only trying to curtail the Fire Department's ballooning overtime cost. Selectmen Peter Cunnigham, Anna Eliot and Stuart Schulman agree with Haddad that his policy strictly stems from budgetary concerns.

At least two other selectmen want to look further into the matter, however.

"It's a very concerning sequence of events especially because the consequences risked public safety," Selectman Jack Petropoulos said of the grievance filed on Nov. 11 and Haddad's order on shift coverage that Bosselait says was given on Nov. 12.

"I find it interesting that one action led to another within a 24-hour period," Selectman Joshua Degen said. "It's worthy of asking the town manager if one thing had to do with the other."

In response to a request last week, the town of Groton released copies of documents related to the grievance that the Professional Firefighters of Groton, Local 4879 recently filed. The documents show the grievance was filed on Nov. 11, which was Veterans Day. On Nov. 12, Haddad told Bosselait that he could only fill shift vacancies when two or more firefighters are absent, according to the fire chief. As a result, the Fire Department has often had three firefighters working on a day shift instead of the usual four.

In the grievance, Lt. Tyler Shute, who serves as Local 4879 president, complained that the union contract, signed in September, calls for more than $8,000 in retroactive payments for various benefits but the town hasn't carried out the promise. Haddad had ignored his earlier request for the payment, Shute wrote.

In his email to Haddad on Nov. 13, Patrick Bryant, attorney who represents Local 4879, alleged that the town manager "apparently promised to stop filling shift vacancies in response to" the union's grievance and that such an action was against the law. Bryant also wrote Haddad "reportedly" vowed not to deal with union representatives. Bryant added that Haddad had made some "stray comment" about the union and that "the escalating lawlessness and threats demonstrate that your actions cannot be characterized as mere aberrations."

"Your allegation of retaliation against the fire union for the exercise of protected activity is baseless," Haddad wrote in his reply to Bryant on Nov. 14.

Haddad pointed out that Bosselait is a so-called "strong chief" with the power to fire and demote staff. Without such authority, the town manager could not "threaten" firefighters, Haddad said. He also noted that he instituted a similar shift vacancy policy for the Police Department. Overtime pay resulted in an additional $45,000 in spending by the Fire Department last year.

Petropoulos is concerned, however, that Haddad never told selectmen about the coverage policy until Petropoulos brought up the issue at the Jan. 13 selectmen meeting.

Law requires two EMTs per ambulance, Bosselait said. He also believes the OSHA standard to have at least two firefighters outside a building on fire and two inside is a sensible one. So, the department often waits for on-call firefighters to arrive or ask for mutual aid to make up for the missing shift slot.

Petropoulos pointed out that Haddad secured more than $58,000 in additional funding for the Fire Department at Town Meeting on Oct. 21, saying it would cover retroactive payment for the five full-time firefighters and for overtime costs for the remainder of fiscal 2014. Only 22 days later, on Nov. 12, Haddad cut back on shift coverage.

"What happened in between?" Petropoulos said.

Cunningham said Haddad actually ordered both Bosselait and the Police Department to leave shift vacancies open in late September, not on Nov. 12.

"It certainly was not done in retribution," Cunningham said of the shift policy.

Eliot also said the allegation of retribution is "completely inaccurate."

Cunningham said the union could have brought the grievance before selectmen after Bosselait denied it, but chose not to seek any further steps in the process.

"This was essentially a dead issue" that only became alive again when Petropoulos decided to air his concern out in the open at the Jan. 13 meeting instead of trying to sit down with Haddad first. That was "fundamentally more disturbing to me" than the allegation of retribution, Cunningham said.