The union for paid firefighters has filed a grievance with the city over the installation of security cameras at the volunteer Springdale Fire Co., saying it’s an illegal invasion of privacy. The Stamford Professional Fire Fighters Association, which has 16 members working in the Springdale firehouse, says the security cameras will create a “big brother” environment and make paid firefighters uncomfortable.
Springdale Fire Chief Shawn Fahan said the security system is necessary to ensure the safety of paid and volunteer firefighters after a series of break-ins, thefts and tampering with firetrucks and equipment. The system would include 14 cameras to be placed in two kitchens, two lounge rooms, the garage and several hallways and exits, Fahan said.
The union said it was never notified of the surveillance system and learned about it only after a paid firefighter saw Fahan on a ladder in the firehouse and asked what he was doing, union President Brendan Keatley said. The union filed the grievance Jan. 29.
Fahan said the Springdale board of directors consulted with its attorney and has the legal right to install security cameras. He obtained permits and is waiting for approval from the board, said he has.
“I think they may be jumping the gun a little bit by filing a grievance when something hasn’t even been installed. We still have time to notify them,” Fahan said. “We’re not being sneaky. All cameras are going to be in plain view of everyone.”
Because of financial hardship and a decline in volunteer membership, the firehouse on Hope Street has been staffed by Stamford Fire & Rescue personnel since 1997. Like the city’s four other volunteer departments, Springdale relies on paid city firefighters to respond to calls, and city funding to operate the firehouse.
But Keatley said cameras in communal areas are intrusive and could create a hostile work environment. When not responding to calls, firefighters spend most of their time in the station’s day rooms, where they can watch TV, eat meals, nap and relax. Keatley said he also worries the footage could end up on YouTube.com and other Web sites.
Firefighters will feel like they’re being harassed, Keatley said.
“We’re not working in a correctional facility. If you want to put cameras in a room where we spend the majority of our time, that’s a problem,” Keatley said. Fahan is “just trying to make us uncomfortable in the workplace.”
Fahan said his department is liable for employee safety and must take action. There have been reports of stolen furniture, a damaged garage door and tampering with fuel lines on a volunteer fire engine, Fahan said.
“We’re not pointing the finger at anybody. We don’t know who’s doing it, and that’s why we have to put these cameras in so we can find out,” he said.
Since last spring, the door to the engineer room, which houses mechanical tools and diesel fuel, was pried open and damaged three times, Fahan said. Nothing was stolen. Police investigated the third break-in, but have no leads, Fahan said.
Volunteers will turn on an engine and find the switches that control the sirens, lights and windshield wipers have been left on, or the doors have been opened, Fahan said. Last fall, volunteers reported reaching into a medical bag for a stethoscope only to find they had been damaged, Fahan said. Last month, a career firefighter reported finding a pig’s foot in his ice cream, Fahan said.
The incidents cost Springdale about $5,000 in damages and repairs, he said. His department reported the incidents to the city and Stamford Fire & Rescue but stopped after nothing was done, Fahan said.
“It’s very difficult to have any type of dialogue with them regarding this because right away they would take it personally and say we’re pointing the finger at them. We just have to keep our eyes and ears open and check our equipment,” he said.
Stamford Fire & Rescue Chief Robert McGrath said he supports the union’s stance and feels Fahan is acting irrationally. McGrath said Fahan’s claims of tampering and theft have been investigated and are unfounded.
“It’s another means of harassment by Chief Shawn Fahan attempting to start a confrontation with paid firefighters that are working there and get us to leave,” McGrath said.
McGrath said he understands Fahan’s concerns but there should be boundaries. None of his department’s five firehouses has security cameras, McGrath said.
“He can put up as many cameras as he wants. But to put them where they live is totally uncalled for. It may be legal in his mind, but it’s certainly not right,” McGrath said.
Paid and volunteer firefighters at Springdale have had a contentious relationship that led to labor complaints and lawsuits. The incident comes on the heels of a public spat between Fahan and several paid firefighters in December. According to McGrath and union officials, Fahan reportedly locked four career firefighters out of the firehouse during a dispute over use of the radio system.
City attorney Thomas Cassone said it’s not illegal to install security cameras in a workplace, but there’s a fine line between public and private.
“I don’t think there’s a hard and fast rule, but there is a balancing between an employee’s privacy interest, especially in the context of a firefighting job where you essentially live in the place of employment for part of your life,” Cassone said.
Fahan said the digital security system would record footage that could be stored up to 36 days then automatically deleted, unless an administrator asked for it to be saved. The cameras would not be manned. The security system would cost about $10,000, Fahan said.
It is unclear whether taxpayers would pay for the system or volunteers will raise funds. That decision is made by the Springdale board of directors and board of finance, he said.
Walt Magalnick, a member of both boards, declined comment.
“That’s our business, and I’m not at liberty to discuss it,” Magalnick said.
Public Safety Director William Callion said he sent a letter to Springdale board President Bruce Vukson and awaiting a response. Vukson could not be immediately reached for comment. Callion, McGrath and Keatley hope the situation can be mediated.
“We’re trying to get it resolved,” Callion said.