After being on the job for more than 12 weeks, Peter McMichael, the first man to head the Warwick Fire Department who did not come up through its ranks, is impressed by the department’s personnel and in awe of the range of conditions its personnel face daily.
McMichael said Warwick presents a “number of unique challenges” to the department, in that the city has 39 miles of shoreline, an airport, Amtrak and interstate highways. Situations for which the department needs to be prepared to respond include a rescue on the bay, a hazardous chemical spill, incidents on Route 95, building fires and incidents at T.F. Green Airport.
McMichael notes that on a weekend, especially at this time of year, the department’s marine units will respond to two or three calls. In addition, he notes the department has a dive team and a technical rescue team trained to extricate people from confined spaces and heights.
“The fire department of today is not the fire department of 60 years ago,” he said.
He added: “You have a lot here and you have a talented group of firefighters. They are focused on doing their job and working together to deliver the best possible service to the city.”
Yet there are uncertainties about the department, starting with McMichael, who although in the position as its leader is still the interim chief. The Board of Public Safety appointed McMichael on March 12, but in subsequent press releases issued by the mayor’s office he was identified as the interim chief.
In an interview June 5, Mayor Joseph Solomon said: “That’s just the way I operate. I don’t act quickly on those items. Chief McMichael and myself get along very well. I wouldn’t have brought him on if I didn’t have confidence in his ability to do the job. I know he possesses the characteristics to perform the job well. He’s got a super temperament. There’s no one calmer.”
Solomon offered no timetable as to when McMichael would get the title of chief on a permanent basis.
“I think in the future he’ll be a good asset to the city,” he said.
Asked Tuesday about the designation, McMichael said the title doesn’t affect his outlook and he carries the responsibilities and the authority regardless.
Before coming to Warwick, McMichael put in nearly 30 years of service with the Providence Fire Department, which he joined in 1989. He was promoted to lieutenant in 2006 and became captain of the capital city’s fire prevention/arson squad in 2014. He was named the department’s fire marshal in 2015 and was responsible for a 30-person unit and preparing a $1.5 million budget annually.
Is the interim designation a form of probation, is that how the mayor explained it?
“You could look at it that way,” McMichael said. If it is a probationary period, he did not know how long it would last.
“I don’t look at it as an issue,” he said. “I imagine when the mayor is ready [he will bestow the title of chief]. I trust his judgment.”
One of the first issues McMichael identified when taking the post is the condition of equipment, which has required the department to borrow as many as five and six pieces of apparatus at a time from other departments as Warwick rescues, engines and ladders are undergoing repairs. He said that has improved, and as of Tuesday no apparatus were on loan to the city. (The exception is the yellow rescue that is on loan from the company providing the new rescue.) Of pride to the mayor is McMichael’s identification of a used ladder in Westerly with low mileage and in good condition, which the mayor was able to purchase for $25,750, saving more than $800,000 over the cost of a new ladder.
In a symbolic gesture, which also provided a photo opportunity, Solomon was to have handed the keys over to McMichael Tuesday in front of the ladder that has been repainted with “Warwick Ladder 1.” As the ladder was on a call, that didn’t take place, although it gave the men the chance to review the status of other equipment. The department is taking delivery of a new engine for one of the rescues, which the two noted is costing as much as the complete ladder, albeit it used, from Westerly.
McMichael applauded the department’s repair and maintenance division.
The city will take delivery of a new Rescue 4, costing $291,631, in July, and McMichael expects a new special hazards rescue truck will be delivered by the end of the year.
“Can’t you speed that up, light a fire under them?” Solomon said with a laugh. As the vehicle is custom made for Warwick, McMichael didn’t think that possible. It is costing $700,000 – but as McMichael noted, because of the department’s ability to secure grants, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is picking up the tab.
McMichael’s acknowledged the pension system and lack of a firefighters’ contract since last June are issues, although he’s confident that “in time” they will be resolved. Solomon had reached a tentative agreement with the union’s leadership that would have resolved the current year with no increase in pay as well as the contract for the year starting July 1 with no increase. In addition, it would have required that all new personnel be on the Tier II pension plan implemented for municipal employees and police in 2015.
Tier II, which reduces retiree benefits for new hires, was believed to have also applied to the Fire Department at the time, but the union challenged that understanding and won an arbitration ruling that Solomon, so far, hasn’t challenged. He said Wednesday an appeal of the ruling to Superior Court is still an option and he is considering that.
When the agreement reached by the executive board was presented to the union membership, the firefighters overwhelmingly rejected the agreement, sending the parties back to interest arbitration. McMichael said talks were as recent as this past Monday. He is not participating in the process.
Solomon said attorney Tim Bliss is dealing with arbitration.
“My door is open,” Solomon said when asked Wednesday if he is looking to reopen talks with the union.
High on McMichael’s list is the city’s financial situation, which he called “very important.” He is seeking to contain costs where he can, but notes it will be difficult to control overtime given minimum manning requirements and the mayor’s decision not to fill vacancies at this time.
As recently as three years ago, the department was at 227 members. As of Tuesday, it was 189.
While overtime costs promise to rise, McMichael noted that overall the department would probably save money, as it won’t be paying the pension and health care costs of new recruits.
Solomon said he has no intention of filling vacancies until a contract and the Tier II pension is resolved. He said he couldn’t hire recruits until he knows what it will cost to fill the ranks of the department.