Mark Haddad calls the accusations baseless.Sun staff photos can be ordered by visiting our Smugmug site.
Mark Haddad calls the accusations baseless.

Sun staff photos can be ordered by visiting our Smugmug site.

GROTON -- Local firefighters sometimes wait many minutes before heading out for an emergency call because they don't have enough staff to respond and need to wait for extra help to arrive, according to Fire Chief Joseph Bosselait.

A new policy instituted by Town Manager Mark Haddad requires Bosselait to leave day-shift vacancies open unless the coverage level falls below three firefighters per shift. Haddad said he is trying to curtail the Fire Department's ballooning overtime costs.

Firefighters said Haddad is retaliating because their union filed a formal complaint about nonpayment of benefits promised under their union contract.

Haddad calls that accusation baseless. Selectmen Peter Cunningham, Anna Eliot and Stuart Schulman agree with Haddad and said his policy stems strictly from budget concerns.

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

"It's a very concerning sequence of events, especially because the consequences risk public safety," Selectman Jack Petropoulos said of Haddad's order, which came the day after the union filed the grievance.

"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 The Sun's request last week, the town released documents related to the grievance that the Professional Firefighters of Groton, Local 4879, recently filed. The documents show the grievance was filed with Bosselait on Nov. 11, 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 often had three firefighters working on a day shift instead of the usual four. Selectmen temporarily allowed Bosselait to fill all vacancies last week.

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

In his email to Haddad on Nov. 13, Patrick Bryant, the attorney who represents Local 4879, alleged 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. Bryant warned Haddad 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 spending for the Fire Department last year, he wrote.

Petropoulos is concerned that Haddad never told selectmen about the coverage policy until Petropoulos brought up the issue at the Jan. 13 selectmen's meeting. State law requires two emergency-crew members per ambulance, Bosselait said. He also believes the OSHA standard -- at least two firefighters outside a building on fire and two inside -- is sensible.

So the department often waits for on-call firefighters to arrive or ask for mutual aid to make up for the missing shift slot. The department experienced significant response delay in four emergency calls in a five-day period around Christmas alone because of that, Bosselait said. On Dec. 20, it took them 16 minutes just to leave the station for mutual aid for a Westford house fire. Then, on Christmas Day, it took 26 minutes to respond to a report of smoke in a building in Groton.

Petropoulos pointed out Haddad secured more than $58,000 in additional funding for the Fire Department at Town Meeting on Oct. 21, saying it would cover "the retroactive pay (including overtime), as well as provide enough funding in fiscal 2014" as stated in the warrant. Only 22 days later, on Nov. 12, Haddad cut back on shift coverage.

"What happened in between?" Petropoulos said.

Cunningham said Haddad actually ordered 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.

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

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

"This was essentially a dead issue" that only became alive when Petropoulos aired it instead of trying to have Haddad and the union work it out, Cunningham said. That was "fundamentally more disturbing to me" than the allegation of retribution, he said.

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