The president of the firefighters union criticized the city's handling of the EMT certification scandal yesterday, warning taxpayers that the fire chief's proposal to suspend 29 firefighters without pay will cost an “astronomical” amount in additional overtime.
Disciplinary hearings for the 29 city firefighters accused of lying about receiving their emergency medical technician recertification are scheduled to begin Thursday.
Yesterday, in an open letter to Haverhill residents, firefighters union President Greg Roberts said the city firefighters embroiled in the controversy “deeply regret” their involvement.
“They are ready to accept responsibility for their actions and take their just punishment,” he wrote.
But Roberts noted the combined 17,000 hours of unpaid suspensions recommended for the accused firefighters by fire Chief Richard Borden will cost the city an “astronomical” $600,000 in overtime costs.
“Without minimizing the magnitude of this error, this discipline is a staggering penalty,” Roberts wrote. “No other municipality has imposed discipline that comes even close for misconduct of this nature. These individuals are willing to accept serious discipline for their actions, but this level of discipline is simply excessive.”
Mayor James Fiorentini acknowledged the firefighters' apology in a written statement of his own yesterday, but defended the fire chief's proposed punishment as being in line with other communities. He even went so far as to say that the firefighters would have been fired if they worked in the private sector.
“While no one wants to spend taxpayer dollars, we cannot simply forgive cases and walk away because there is a cost,” Fiorentini said. “We can never allow wrongdoers to choose their own penalties and we can never allow people to get away with wrongdoing because it might cost us money. If there is a cost to suspensions, we will spread the suspensions out and take other measures to minimize the cost to the taxpayers. Whatever the cost that remains, we believe should come out of the money that we were planning to give the firefighters to settle their back contract dispute. They should pay for their wrong doing, not the taxpayers.”
The Haverhill firefighters are among more than 200 firefighters statewide who have been suspended from working as EMTs by the state for allegedly falsifying records to show that they completed EMT recertification when they did not actually attend the required training.
On New Year's Eve, Fiorentini notified the 29 Haverhill firefighters named last year by the state as participants in the scandal that they face unpaid suspensions, demotions of rank and possibly even losing their jobs.
EMTs are required to take refresher courses every two years. The courses cover basic skills and new procedures. In Haverhill, firefighters receive an extra $1,500 per year if they are EMTs, and some receive more for additional medical training.
Borden has recommended that Fiorentini suspend 22 of the firefighters without pay for 624 hours each — the equivalent of approximately 26, 24-hour shifts, or about 30 percent of their annual pay. He has recommended 300 hours of unpaid suspensions for the other seven firefighters.
If he supports the fire chief's recommended punishment, Fiorentini has said the suspensions would be spread out over the next year or two to avoid closing fire stations or paying other firefighters excessive overtime to fill in for the suspended firefighters.
Fiorentini is to decide the punishments after the disciplinary hearings.
Haverhill firefighter Jeffrey Given was fired several months ago for his role in the EMT training scheme, and the city held a similar disciplinary hearing for him.
Given allegedly facilitated the scheme locally by collecting money from and obtaining the signatures of colleagues who were then recertified as EMTs without undergoing the required training. According to authorities, Given collected money and the signatures of firefighters and then passed them to another person, Leo Nault, who provided the recertifications.
Given, Nault and three others were recently indicted by a Suffolk County grand jury for their parts in the scheme. Nault is a former paramedic at Trinity EMS in Haverhill.
Fiorentini wrote yesterday that the city is taking the “charges of falsifying records, and, in some cases, obtaining money from the city of Haverhill under false pretenses” very seriously.
“The city of Haverhill has always been ready and willing to work with the firefighters to resolve differences but we do not believe this can be resolved by a slap on the wrist,” Fiorentini wrote. “One firefighter has already been fired and indicted by a state grand jury. We are confident that this firing will be upheld on appeal. The settlement proposed by the firefighters included returning Mr. Given … This is unacceptable.”
Roberts pointed out in his letter that it was the union who notified the city of the EMT certification problem when it first surfaced, after members met with the director of clinical services for Trinity EMS on May 11 and learned that a refresher course was never administered.
In addition to overtime costs, Roberts wrote that the suspensions recommended by Borden will have a “ripple effect” on the city that will negatively impact public safety.
“This union remains willing to talk about reasonable solutions to restore the public's faith in this department, just as it has from the moment the scandal broke,” Roberts wrote. “The union remains willing to work with the administration to try to come up with a solution that would punish those involved and would not impair services to the citizen and would limit costs. We urge the administration to come to the table and work out a reasonable solution.”
He added that the union members involved in the EMT scandal were ready to accept discipline that would not only significantly punish the individuals, but also save city taxpayers $250,000.
But Fiorentini said the firefighters have already rejected proposals from the city to resolve the matter through a combination of suspensions and working for free.
“The firefighters rejected these offers and insisted upon much more lenient penalties that we did not feel were in the best long-term interests of the city of Haverhill,” the mayor wrote. “When we refused to give in to their demands, (they) walked away from the table and implied they would go to the public. I will not be bullied by the union into accepting terms dictated by them.”
The disciplinary hearings, which will be open to the public at City Hall, are scheduled to begin at 9 a.m. Thursday. The city has hired Lynnfield attorney Howard Greenspan to preside over the hearings and make recommendations.