Looming Showdown Over Fire Department Staffing Threatens Mayor’s Haverhill Spending Plans

Haverhill Fire Chief Robert O’Brien told councilors in May of 2022 he is not “getting everything I want” in the fire department budget. Firefighter Ryan Fairbanks is seated behind the chief. (WHAV News file photograph.)

Haverhill councilors are one vote away from another budget showdown with the mayor over staffing in the fire department.

Councilors Monday night in 4-4 tie votes both rejected Mayor James J. Fiorentini’s $12 million spending plan for the fire department and a motion to increase minimum shift manning. The latter vote was largely symbolic since councilors may not add money to spending under the city charter. They, however, reserve the right to kill the budget outright. Fire Chief Robert M. O’Brien acknowledged he negotiated with the mayor to achieve a slight increase in his budget, but it is less than he requested.

“I’m 29 years in the job and there’s two less firefighters on now. I really don’t think I’m getting everything I want,” he said.

At issue were the minimum number of firefighters responding to any given emergency. Currently 19—or three per truck plus a deputy—are dispatched to calls. Haverhill Firefighters Local 1011 has long sought at least two more for safety reasons. Fiorentini said his budget puts eight more crew members on the street by replacing four dispatchers with civilians and adding four new firefighter positions. Councilor Melissa J. Lewandowski expressed skepticism, however, saying there is no guarantee more firefighters would actually be dispatched.

There were two turning points in the discussion. The first came when O’Brien acknowledged hiring firefighters without requiring minimum staffing could end up simply relieving overtime costs. The second was a motion by Councilor John A. Michitson to scrap the dispatcher change and mandate two more firefighters per shift. The mayor first argued minimum staffing ties the city’s hands during an emergency, but he conceded there are options.

“You can close a truck down…You can close a station down. Mayor (John J.) Guerin closed the Bradford Fire Station. I reopened it. You can do that, but you cannot change minimum staffing,” he said.

Union members also noted they allowed their ranks to drop in 2004 during a financial crisis.

Fiorentini estimated the cost of increasing the minimum number of firefighters from three to four per truck would be $16 million over 10 years. Council President Timothy J. Jordan, however, countered the amount would largely be covered by new taxes from the planned Lupoli downtown redevelopment. Either way, he argued, a price tag can’t be placed on firefighter safety.

O’Brien told councilors his budget must increase because of overtime to fill in for injured firefighters and added fuel costs. He said the department also must find garage space to protect vehicles and equipment, replace a boiler at the High Street Fire Station and replace both a 1981 Boston Whaler boat and 1995 hovercraft with “large holes in the bottom.” O’Brien’s wish list also includes the addition of another ladder truck to be housed at the Bradford Fire Station. The mayor said equipment costs are not in the budget, but rather in the city’s capital plan which he will separately introduce.

While on the topic of capital costs, Councilor Melinda E. Barrett asked about plans to build an additional fire station closer to Interstate 495—either off Broadway or Ward Hill. The new station would allow faster responses to calls at Ayer’s Village or Rocks Village. Fiorentini said a study underway by the Center for Public Safety Management would review the question as well as staffing.

While he chose the study vendor from the four proposals the city received, the chief said, he opposed any study. O’Brien said he and the department have their own knowledge of needs and priorities. Nevertheless, Fiorentini said he selected the chief’s choice rather than his choice of Matrix, which has conducted studies previously for the city.

The mayor did make one concession, agreeing to an idea by Councilor Thomas J. Sullivan to spend $22,000 to replace firehouse furniture he described as “deplorable.”

In support of rejecting the budget and increasing minimum manning by two more firefighters per shift were Councilors Jordan, Michitson, Lewandowski and Catherine Rogers. On the opposite sides were Barrett, Sullivan and Joseph J. Bevilacqua and Shaun P. Toohey. The 4-4 tie votes will be revisited before a final June 14 vote on the total budget and could change when absent Councilor Michael S. McGonagle weighs in.

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