Firefighters' shift swapping comes under fire

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Civilian critics of the Warwick Fire Department have released more information from their analytical deep dive into the department’s shift activity from FY17, and this time they have targeted the practice of how firefighters swap shifts for one another to, they say, preserve sick time and extend time off for themselves.

Ken Block, chairman of Watchdog RI, and Rob Cote, a Warwick resident well known for his critiques of the Warwick Fire Department, digitized data from July 1, 2016 to May 31, 2017 that tracks shift data for firefighters – such as which firefighters were on or off duty, which ones called in sick or were on vacation, and so on.

Also included within this data is when a firefighter has asked another firefighter to cover their shift for them in lieu of taking a sick or vacation day. The practice, known simply as a change of shift, is a practice by which a firefighter can swap shift duties with another firefighter based on the agreement between the two that the firefighter covering the shift will be reciprocated at some point in the future by the firefighter who had his or her shift covered.

While changes of shift incur no immediate additional cost to the city – firefighters who cover the shifts are not compensated officially, and the firefighter who swaps the shift is paid as though they worked – Block and Cote’s data from FY17 showed that, of 1,539 changes of shift that occurred, 206 shifts were not reciprocated in that same time span. This means that in that span, there were 206 shifts where a firefighter was paid for being on duty despite not working that day, and the firefighter covering for him was not compensated.

So what is the incentive for a firefighter to work a shift for a colleague despite there being no overt incentive – and even a possible detriment – to do so? Union representatives say it is a simple honor system where firefighters have one another’s backs in the event something unexpected comes up.

“At some point you’re going to need one,” said Brandon Ingegneri, treasurer of the Warwick Firefighter’s Union IAFF Local 2748. “And not every guy does them. There are guys that don’t sign up for other people’s change of shift unless they know they’ll need a day.”

Michael DeFusco, vice president of the union, said that language outlining changes of shift were included in the fire department’s most recent contract – which is due to expire in June – but that there were no limitations set on the number of changes of shifts firefighters could request and no provisions setting a time limit on when those changes of shift had to be reciprocated. However, he believes the give-and-take nature of the policy prevents outright abuse of the system.

“They do get paid back,” he said. “There is no time limit when you have to pay them back, but we are very tight knit group. We are all pretty much friendly together from the administration on down. There is nobody that is going to say you work 20 shifts for me and I’m not paying you back. It does not happen.”

Ingegneri provided an example of when he swapped shifts with someone in early 2016 only to suffer a serious injury from a motorcycle accident a short time later. He wasn’t able to reciprocate that shift change until over a year later, once he was able to return to full duty. But he paid it back.

“That person would become a pariah if they did [not reciprocate a change of shift],” he said.

Cote asserts that not having any official written policy regarding how many changes of shift can be utilized and when they need to be reciprocated means it is not an official policy, and is in violation of the city's charter.

Change of shift procedures have come under fire in other communities in recent years.

In 2011 the Boston Globe published an expose that reviewed widespread inequity in the number of shifts that were swapped versus shifts reciprocated. In one case a firefighter owed 554 shifts, approximately three years of shifts, to others who had covered for him. This firefighter resigned but was eventually rehired, wiping that slate of time owed clean.

In 2018, the Kansas City Star published a piece which outlined nearly $1 million in dollars being paid to firefighters who traded shifts, many of whom exceeded their capped limit on shift trading. In this report and in the Globe’s, the practice of paying fellow firefighters under the table in exchange for covering a shift was reported by firefighters, though no physical accounting of this behavior was presented. Block and Cote have produced no evidence of under the table pay occurring in Warwick.

Cote and Block have shown through their data gathering, however, that firefighters utilize change of shifts to extend vacations.

One firefighter, whose name has been redacted, worked only 95 shifts in the 11-month span of the data as opposed to 64 days off through vacation, changes of shift and sick leave. In December of 2016, the firefighter utilized four consecutive changes of shift, worked one shift, then utilized a sick personal leave day and six more changes of shifts to get nearly 29 consecutive shifts off (including scheduled time off).

The same firefighter, later in April of 2017, only worked three on-duty shifts the entire month. The firefighter utilized a vacation day, change of shift and sick day on April 7, 8 and 9, followed by a series of vacation days and three more changes of shifts to nearly 31 days off in a row (including scheduled time off).

Block asserts that nearly half of the changes of shifts taken by firefighters occur in pairs, and others are often taken on either end of their scheduled four days off – creating six-day “mini vacations” where firefighters do not need to utilize their actual vacation time.

“I think the details are indicative of the type of problem that is embedded in this fire department,” Block said.

Union reps, however, don’t deny that changes of shifts are utilized for vacation purposes, among other reasons.

“There are guys who utilize it for vacation,” Ingegneri said. “We’ve also had individuals in the past who have had terminally ill children that have had to get treatment in Boston, and they’ve utilized changes of shift for things like that. Even something as simple as if I have a wedding on Friday night and I’m on duty and can’t get a vacation day, okay, you work Friday and I’ll work Saturday for you. Most of the time it’s like that. Are there times where it’s done in blocks? Yes. Is it commonplace? I’d say just as common as individual days or nights.”

More of an issue to Block and Cote than prolonging vacations, however, is their allegation that changes of shift can be utilized to preserve vacation time and sick time – the latter of which can be banked and monetized later on in a firefighter’s career.

However the union says this practice does not occur.

“When you’re sick, you use a sick day,” Ingegneri said. “I don’t know personally of any person that has been sick that said they’re going to take a change of shift.”

While the data reflects an imbalance in time borrowed through changes of shift versus time paid back, DeFusco denied any widespread abuse of the system.

“We do not believe there is anybody violating any of the policies of the fire department,” he said. “I can’t speak to what happened in Boston, but we follow our policy and our contract and that’s what we stand for… Our contract has stuff in it that was negotiated years before I was around. We don’t want to lose stuff because people abuse the system, so we do not do that.”

“If there is any overt ‘abuse’ of the system, someone is going to get called upstairs and they’re going to have a talking to, and we’re going to recommend they make sure they pay those days back or vice versa,” Ingegneri said. Details driving overtime?

The second part of Block and Cote’s recent release targets practices regarding how firefighters are assigned to activities that are described generally as “detailed out,” which they assert forces other firefighters to come in and work at time and a half, driving about $80,000 in unnecessary overtime costs annually.

Of 162 “detailed out” shifts cataloged in their FY17 data, 154 were given to firefighters who were already working an on-duty shift.

“This is the whole department collectively acting against the interests of the taxpayers,” Block said. “This should not be allowed.”

However, the union said the data is misleading, as many detailed out shifts are reimbursed by the federal government through grants, such as cases where firefighters are trained on hazmat, technical rescue and rescue diving practices.

“If the three of us are detailed out for a hazmat training that we’re getting federal reimbursement for, that would be in the overtime budget, but it should not be,” DeFusco said. “It should be a separate line item and have its own code. Because it’s not an overtime cost, it’s money that will be reimbursed by the federal government.”

The Warwick Fire Department has overspent its allotted overtime budget every year since FY03 (when the city began uploading its budgets to its website). Since FY03, the department has exceeded budget on overtime by a total of $7,918,643.

Despite hiring 24 new recruits in February of last year, a move which fire administrators said would drastically cut down on overtime costs, the fire department is projected to spend about $270,000 more on overtime costs this year than in FY17. The union representatives stated overtime costs this year have been extenuated by a higher number of on-the-job injuries and retirements, though they did not provide numbers to corroborate this statement.

Acting Fire Chief Marcel Fontenault did not respond to requests for comment by press time.

Block and Cote continue to go through the data, and have identified other issues pertaining to the department’s accounting and banking of sick days, though they have not made an official release of this data at this time.

Union president Michael Carreiro said that Block and Cote were right to be asking questions, but that they should be careful to consider multiple sides to the issues.

“It’s great that they’re doing this and looking out for the taxpayers, but you always have to look for both sides,” he said.

Comments

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davebarry109

The police department allows the rare shift swap on a case by case basis. Officers may swap once or twice a year. Most never swap. How can the police, who also work all hours, get time off for weddings and such but the FD cannot? End the swap nonsense.

Tuesday, May 29
richardcorrente

I have heard this kind of anti-fire department for long enough.

I decided to look into it as objectively as I could. (You should too). I went on salary.com and compared the salaries of Warwicks' Firefighters to firefighters all across the nation. I learned that New Jersey firefighters get paid the most and that Warwick firefighters are EXACTLY the average. Not more. Not less. EXACTLY the average wage of every firefighter across the nation. When you consider that they breath toxic, cancer-causing air EVERY TIME they arrive at a fire, how can anyone complain? I won't.

Happy Summer everyone.

Rick Corrente

The Taxpayers Mayor

Tuesday, May 29
foundation

davebarry109,

The police department is afforded the opportunity to accumulate “comp time” which is time exclusive of sick, personal, or vacation time. This is accumulated through additional hours worked without compensation, very similar to a fire drpartment’s “change of shift”. The fire department has not been afforded a comp time provision. That is a reason why “swaps” are more regularly utilized.

Tuesday, May 29
tekpfd

Mr. Block & Mr. Cote are blatantly lying about the Change of Shift and the Detailed Out policies of the WFD being scams against the taxpayer. Once and for all they need to sit down with members of the WFD and learn the "basic" definitions of these policies!

Then to hold them as experts in the field and consider their I'll advised suggestion to move the WFD to a 3 platoon system would be ludicrous!

Wednesday, May 30
scootersmom

I think it is just ludicrous that the Warwick Watch woman, surely the “investigator" who does not hide the fact that she is out to get the Warwick Fire Dept., is going after our local heros. That's what they are, heros. How many of you are willing to run into a burning house to save you, your child or even your cat or dog? If you were, you'd be a firefighter. Who cares is they switch shifts as long as they have full shifts working round the clock. She wants to screw up a lifesaving entity. She should move to another state.

The amount of crookedness in this state government and this idiot wants to complain about money FIREFIGHTERS make. You know, fires, traffic accidents, shootings, murders, bomb threats, chemical attacks, heart attacks, drug,overdoses. Those are only some of the battles firefighters take on. And they even can suffer from PTSD, from seeing the horrors inflicted on a little local girl by a drunk driver, for example.

Why not go after C---i Construction and question why that pave a road, dig it up, pave it again, dig it up, pave it and then come back to fix all the potholes due to their cheap work. Now there's a huge stealing money.

Leave the Warwick Firefighters alone because if my house catches fire I want them here putting it and out not letting it burn down so that it gives the Warwick Witch something to write about.

Wednesday, May 30
Scal1024

I have always said WFD is the best in the state, probably one of the best in the region. When these issues come up its hard for the public to turn on people who risk their lives to save them if ever needed.

It has always seemed like ot has run high, but I'm not sure politicians of any kind should be determining the proper amount of platoons that should be on at 1 time. I just don't see how thats in the public safetys interest. I think its a good idea to have WFD sit down with Cote and explain this better to him, but also Rob should be able to speak about what he thinks is going on and the record should be corrected as needed. If this were done respectfully (that means no one heckling anyone while speaking, no accusing anyone of criminality or name calling etc) I actually think the meeting would be productive. I do believe there is alot of unchecked information being discussed which is unfair to the WFD. They shouldn't have to do their job while wondering if they're being watched. Whether its at the store, or at a call, let the WFD do their job. Theres a reason they are one of the best and I think the majority of the public agrees (which is why these accusations don't ever get anywhere). I'm all for a public discussion where the WFD and Cote are given time but civility would obviously be the key.

Wednesday, May 30
Warwick Man

Scal, the overtime numbers stated in this article are even misreported by the Beacon. Yes 24 recruits were hired, but they didn’t come into the line (meaning out of recruit School till November (the beacon even covered their graduation), and if you look at the OT that year 75% of it was from July 1st to November. Recruits hasn’t graduated and didn’t fill to cover OT yet. There is more to the story it’s just conveniently written a certain way. We would meet of course, I would love an independent voice to verify the findings as well.

Wednesday, May 30
Scal1024

Thank you for clarifying the difference Warwick Man. Is it your opinion that those recruits will continue to drive down ot costs? I agree with you those are important things for the public to hear that I don't think are being included in the conversation yet. I would think when the recruits started and the decreased ot costs from that time on would be important to the discussion. Hopefully more is included in the story next time they write an article about it.

Wednesday, May 30
Warwick Man

Scal,

Yes under normal circumstances the 5 floaters (extra personnel) per shift cover the 5 vacation slots per shift. There are other factors, members out injured on duty, or off duty. We do not have workers comp or TDI, if someone like the article above stated hurts themselves off duty they have to use sick time. So if there are five floaters and a total of 6 people out 1 overtime slot is created. Keep in mind that due to retirements, we are down to around 2 floaters per shift now, meaning now you have to fill at a minimum 3 slots with overtime. You can hire 10 floaters per shift and there will be no overtime, but the salary line in the budget will far exceed the OT number. This year since salary will be down but OT will be close to where the chief budget for. OT will be over because the City Council cut $600,000 from it last year. Keep in mind Cranston is a similar sized city and their OT budget is more than twice the city of Warwick.

Wednesday, May 30
Warwick Man

Scal,

One point I was trying to make is, the OT budget may look big, but due to retirements, the reduction in budgeted Salary is down quite a bit. . The FD usually is under its total budget every year.

Wednesday, May 30
Daydreambeliever

In today’s world sadly sensationalizing everything by the media and news outlets is a common practice.

Take for example the headline of this article. It isn’t coming under fire it’s being questioned by 2 individuals. Did I say 2? So as usual the Beacon in order to sell copies creates a headline that isn’t quite as bad as it appears.

As for a sit down with Bobby I think it’s a bad idea as he doesn’t deserve it. He is a taxpayer like anyone of us and he’s displayed quite outlandish accusations and his personal opinions of the fire department.

Until he displays a more civilized approach for a length of time not one person should with him and explain anything.

There is no way in heck he could hold his tongue at a meeting even with a neutral moderator. It’s not in his DNA.

Wednesday, May 30
Daydreambeliever

Detailed out (DO) is utilized when there are bids in the months of June and December and personnel have to be moved around accordingly, if they switched from one station to another or to different apparatus on the same platoon or another platoon. It’s just the software and how it has to be entered it doesn’t mean they are working details while working the regar shift.

As stated earlier the Technical Rescue training, the Hazmat training are funded by grants or the federal government that they get reimbursed for. Unfortunately it doesn’t go into a different line item just inflates the overtime leading the 2 individuals to think it’s more than it actually is.

Also details for anyone’s information can only be worked on there 2 middle days off not during there work shift.

Wednesday, May 30
allent

Firefighters know every scam in the book.

Wednesday, May 30
Daydreambeliever

Allent is a moron but guess who he will call when he or someone he loves needs medical attention ?

Yup you got it the “scammers” ....

Wednesday, May 30
LobstahMan

Who is liable when a firefighter is injured on the job while working a shift he is not on the books for?

Thursday, May 31
Warwick Man

Lobstah,

Everyone is on the books, if you are at work for someone else you still sign in just like you were supposed to, the person doing the swap is not getting paid. And if you are injured you are injured. There is a federal law allowing Swaps.

https://www.law.cornell.edu/cfr/text/29/553.31

Thursday, May 31
LobstahMan

Well noted.

Thursday, May 31
bendover

"What we have here, is failure to communicate." When I see the words, "Honor system" used to describe the covering of missed shifts, well, call me a doubting Thomas. I have no idea if Block, Cote and Cushman are all correct in assessing the financial condition of this City, but I have seen enough of the "RI shuffle" over the last 40 years to know where there is smoke there is fire, no pun intended. A performance or forensic audit may be needed to sort this mess out and the findings may have to be presented to a grand jury...Here is one thing I know, if I was a young member of this department, I would not count on getting the same generous benefits as those members who are nearing retirement...Think, Central Falls...

Thursday, May 31
WwkVoter

Daydream said " It isn’t coming under fire it’s being questioned by 2 individuals."

Like, Woodward and Bernstein?

Bendover also has a good point, a multimillion dollar public department should not have any part of the process of spending those millions of taxpayer dollars on an "honor system", especially a dept that that promised to dramatically reduce the costly overtime when hiring many new members, then didnt.

I like the FD, but this has gone on for so long, that it is time for a good thorough audit, and then compare to the best run FD's in the country, and enact operations and fiscal process that no one can complain about. That's the only right way to end this.

And I would add, I truly hope they find nothing major wrong.

Thursday, May 31
tekpfd

Daydreambeliever, the "honor system" you refer to is an honor system that works firefighter to firefighter, not firefighter to City (taxpayers). If one firefighter owes another 5 shifts and retires there is no recourse for the firefighter who is owed time. He just worked those shifts for nothing.

Thursday, May 31
TermLimits

Copied and pasted here from the Warwick Watch page.

Scroll to @ 3:00:00 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ae2VzIdcs_I

15 Warwick firefighters have retired this year. It was revealed last night at the city budget meeting that another 17 firefighters have also put their notices in to retire — but get this— it depends on the what the outcome will be with the new fire union contract which is still in negotiations. So if the firefighters don’t get what they want, they quit or they sue.

Warwick Watch emailed the new Mayor last night along with the city council asking that they do not ratify the fire union contract and go back to renegotiate after getting a new City Solicitor on board and getting rid of the one we have now who was the chief union contract negotiator.

Being down 32 firefighters helps to ease us into removing an entire platoon. The City wouldn’t have to give out pink slips. Let 32 Firefighters retire, then cut out an entire platoon just like North Kingstown and East Greenwich did and go to 3 shifts instead of 4 .

Last night, Ken Block and Rob Cote also laid out the facts regarding the abuse taking place when it comes to change of shifts. You can hear all of the facts in the video below. Hopefully RIPEC will also do their due diligence in uncovering all of the waste and abuse, and or the IRS.

Friday, June 1
PaulHuff

2 guys complaining , one of which has an axe to grind, is hardly the fire department coming “under fire”.

Friday, June 1
GoodJake

Termlimits this is why you didn’t make office. East Greenwich still has 4 shifts and will continue once court proceedings are complete. North Kingstown Fire is no longer working 14 hrs a week for free after the courts deemed it illegal. Plus your using East Greenwich as your compass?? Have you read about the shenanigans going on there?

Saturday, June 2
Happy Guy

Wow, interesting issue here. Knowing so many past and some present firefighters they provide so many services to the local community, not just as a firefighter. So many of them work side jobs servicing neighbors needs. This can cause a need for them to finish up a job, where a shift change is needed, or let someones work go until they get more time off. These people are aggressively trying to do better for not only the community, but for their families. Support them, don't criticize them.

Saturday, June 2
WwkVoter

Not for nuthin, but some of you guys are not helping. For example, describing the job as so flexible, with the "honor system" payroll tracking, so the firefighters can work side businesses, "to help the community" by not showing up for work, is not the case I would present. Further, staying off their scheduled city job for us taxpayers so they can "finish a [side] job" is not exactly a bennie we people who are paying the bill here usually get. I mean, I cannot ever tell my boss that I am not showing up, but dont worry Vinny will cover and I will cover him sometime, so I can finish a side job. Even if it's for "somebody in the community".

Bottom line, maybe shift swapping can be allowed for but this needs to be professionalized and tracked like labor in any other organization. And then keep those public records as long as the law requires. That's your fix right there.

Saturday, June 2
Thecaptain

tekpfd

Pertaining to your last comment.

What you fail to understand is that the FF that retired without giving back the time owed, was paid by the taxpayers for working and he never worked. As such was the case in numerous departments around the country where even one FF took 500+ changes of shifts and retired and never paid back one. There should be no 'HONOR SYSTEM" in any municipality department when the taxpayer foots the bill. Sorry you can't understand that. Particularly when you come from the fraud riddled PFD.

Sunday, June 3
tekpfd

The captain:

What you fail to understand is that shift was covered by an equally qualified firefighter as a swap FOR THE OTHER FF, not for the City. As such the taxpayers are not out a single dime. That is the fiscal reality. Anything else is just causing a big commotion over nothing...but although I'm new to dealing with you I see that this is your specialty.

If that shift is covered, and it ALWAYS is, the taxpayers need not be concerned. No FF is ripping them off in this exchange!

Sunday, June 3
tekpfd

The captain:

Also, the records you base everything on begin when???? The date isn't important but the fact that this has been going on forever and you begin tracking on a finite date mean you don't know how many of these COS that you state are the original swap are in fact a payback for a COS that occurred a year or two ago.

Show me how you've taken that into consideration in your calculations.........sorry, I should say accusations!!!

Sunday, June 3
Thecaptain

tkpfd

SECTION 2. SUBSTITUTIONS

The right to substitute at any time shall be permitted, provided, however, that permission

in writing to substitute must be obtained from the Battalion Chief on duty. A substitution

shall be defined as a mutual exchange of time. No other form of compensation shall be

allowed.

Show me where it states in the contract that there is an infinite amount of time for this scheme to be paid back.

https://www.warwickri.gov/sites/warwickri/files/uploads/fire_contract_2015-18.pdf

Monday, June 4
Daydreambeliever

There is no timetable or expiration when one needs to return the mutual exchange of time.

You know the answer but keep asking the same thing.

Oh and just curious the council passed the budget so who got the haircut ? Police ? Fire ?Municipal?

Monday, June 4
PHSVolleyball

@ The 'Captain'

Why ask the question about where in the contract mentions infinite time to back back the substitution. You know it's not there, just like having a set amount of time to repay the time is not there either. Jeesh. Stop being a ball buster and an attention hound.

Tuesday, June 5
tekpfd

thecaptain:

Show me where it states that there is a "finite" time for the shift to be paid back. Also, show me where it states that the time "must" be paid back.

You're trying to make your own rules regarding this policy.

While you have the right to question policies you don't understand, you also have an obligation to listen to the answers. Neither you or your crony Block listen to the answers from the people who understand the policy. You both spread your own inaccurate propaganda as if it were the gospel.

Tuesday, June 5
Straightfactshomie

At the budget hearing on 5/31 Mr. Cote stated the WFD uses 1652 COS in fiscal 2017. A year in the FD consists of 33580 shifts (46 FF x 2 shifts per day x 365 days). So COS account for 1652/33580 or 4.9% or all shifts worked. So on average a FF takes a change 1 out of every 20 shifts for a job where half of all shifts are overnight, 6 out of every 8 tours fall on all or some portion of a weekend, and depending on how the schedule falls, a single platoon could work nearly every major holiday in a calander year. And because vacation is picked based on seniority the most junior FFs may be required to take all of their vacation time in January and February leaving them no way to get a shift off for the remainder of the year other than a COS. As for the 206 “unreciprocated” shifts, they represent just 6/10ths of 1% of all shifts. A number that severely undermines Mr. Cote’s assertion that this is a wide spread “scam.” It is further undermined by the fact that he claims 2 FFs are responsible for nearly a quarter of that 206 meaning the rest of the department would owe, on average, less than a day, And the arbitrary start and end dates to the data further skew any conclusions drawn from the numbers. A FF could take a COS on the night of 6/30 and repay that shift back on the day of 7/1 and Mr. Block and Mr Cote’s analysis would show an unreciprocated shift even though back to back shifts were swapped.

When it comes “detailed out” shifts Mr. Block and Mr. Cote are also mistaken. FFs can be DO for many reasons, but most commonly around “bids” when members change platoons, or for training. DO around bids result in no OT. It’s just a way to track which members moved to new spots for the first tour after a bid takes effect. Trainings can result in OT(but not always) if no floaters are available. But OT cost is the same whether an on duty FF is DO and his spot is filled at OT or whether the training occurs off duty and a FF is paid OT to attend. The cost to the city is the same. And large chunks of DO trainings are reimbursed by state of federal money because of grants written and secured by members of the department.

And Mr Cote claims the OT budget has been exceeded every year since 2003. While this may be true the salary line item has been under budget by over $4 million over the same span. And the OT budget deficit has been artificially inflated by federal grant money and a city council who has cut money from the OT line item even while knowing, that because of staffing deficits, the FD would not be able to avoid going over the reduced budget

Tuesday, June 5