There was a changing of the guard the other day at city hall. The deputies and captains lined the back of the upstairs conference room. Control of the Fire Department was being handed down to the chosen successor, and we reporters asked our respectful questions, and went home to write our stories. On the stage was the Mayor, to his left was Brian Duggan, looking stern, to the right of the mayor was Duane Nichols, the younger guy who was taking over. The Mayor, very much the stern Air Force veteran, told us that our fire department was the best in the world, and Duane was superbly qualified by experience and training, to take over the helm. The decision was evidently seen as a slam-dunk. I talked to Duane a little more than a week ago, he said he hadn’t heard a thing about the selection process, and hadn’t been talked to. My hunch is that the whole selection process consisted of being called up to the city hall, being asked by the mayor if he wanted the job, and being told that he had it.
I would have been happier if they went outside, but Duane is smart, approachable, honest and certainly not a martinet like Duggan. And I think he knows how to put out a fire, something that Duggan never mastered. He is big on preparation, slow on attack. When one of Northampton’s biggest fires broke out in Meadowbrook apartments in 2009 , the actual attack on the blaze only started when Easthampton arrived. Duane is a good guy. If you as a reporter go in to talk to Duane, you won’t have to file a freedom of information request to get a fire report. He’ll tell you what happened and get you the report.
What makes me unhappy is Northampton mayors kow-towing before Duggan’s degrees and book knowledge and tolerating his side businesses and his other outside ventures for so long, and giving him the open checkbook to make our department the most expensive in the valley. Most expensive, not the best. Not progressive, but very traditional. A haven for featherbedding.
No other city department has grown so dramatically over the last four years. Almost doubled. In 2012, its budget was $3.2 million, in 2016 it is slated to be $5.7 million, an 83% increase. By way of comparison, the police budget has remained relatively stable. It was 5 million in 2012, it is only 5.87 million today, a relatively modest 17% increase. Why is the department so expensive? Highly paid administrators, and too many of them.
On our city’s website, you can find a list of city employees and their salaries. I picked out the top 100 and posted them here. Fire/Rescue has ten people in the top twenty wage-earners. Their salaries are ample, and there is all that overtime they have been able to accrue. Do they approve each-other’s chits? Does the mayor ever look at the situation?
Position Name Work Week Budgeted Salary Actual wages 2013/14
Fire Chief B. Duggan 40 hrs $125,362 $145,741
Asst. Chief D. Nichols 40 hrs $86,487 $113,552
Dep. Chief D. Gagne 42 hrs $78,297 $104.205
Dep. Chief T. McQuestion 42 hrs $81,463 $105,201
Dep. Chief C. Norris 42 hrs $72,354 $96,321
Dep. Chief S. Vanasse 42 hrs $72,334 $96,408
Dep. Chief J Davine 42 hrs $72,334 $115,745
Totals: $588,641 $777,177
One captain earns a salary just half a whisker under $100,000, and the mayor earns less than $80,000. No other department in the valley has so many expensive chiefs and so few indians. So many guys standing around on the lawn. We got 17 supervisors for 50 firefighters. That’s one supervisor for every 3 firefighters. Does this mean the department is proactive, progressive and has on its record some spectacular saves in terms of fighting fires? Not lately. As fire departments go, it is determinedly old fashioned and aloof. They have their castle, and they only leave it when the alarm goes off.
In 1997, a long time ago, a study authored by Municipal Research Incorporated (MRI) called for a major shake up and reorganization of the department. The explosive report suffered the fate of many explosive reports: it was put into into the file. And Duggan, hired in the wake of the report, ended up working for MRI as a consultant. He went around New England for many years recommending that other towns and cities the adoption of the kind of modern organizational structure recommended by that report. Here at home, however, he was very comfortable with the old order. He didn’t have to work that hard, and had plenty of free time to work for MRI. He was never at the station before eleven. He wrote books, he addressed conferences, he travelled, and he went to school at a Homeland Defense academy. And new highly paid administrators were added to the department.
The basic department structure which still exists today, is a relic of the nineteenth century.
This is the structure the MRI study recommended
A very similar structure to Amherst today.
The report called for the creation of the position of assistant chief, eliminated three deputy chiefs, and placed captains in the role of shift commanders, and created the position of lieutenant as a kind of working foreman position. Amherst, Easthampton and many other neighboring fire departments rely on captains or lieutenants to lead their fire companies. “Captains, not Deputy Chiefs belong in the front seat of an attack engine company.” said the study. “While their titles indicate that they are senior department managers, they are in reality very well paid shift or “company” officers.
Why? If you’re going to pay someone from $75,000 to $100,000 a year, you should demand that they have the skill set that goes with being administrators and public representatives of the department, handling things like training, compliance with state and federal regulations, fire prevention, water supply, and a hundred and one other things. You can’t set up meetings in neighborhoods on fire prevention if you are on the midnight to seven shift. Try to get in touch with a Deputy Chief and you’ll hear, more often than not, that “He’ll be here in the station two weeks from now at three in the afternoon. “
It was Mayor Mary Ford that brought in Brian Duggan from out of town, in the wake of the report. MRI gave us Duggan. I think he had an inside track on the position from the very start thanks to his connections with MRI. He rode into town of the wings of the report, but then never implemented it. Mary Ford caved in and never made the recommendations of the report public, because the contents were so scandalous, and she was under enormous stress from a rebellious department. The deal evidently worked out was that the deputies could keep their jobs if they would go along with an outsider taking over the department. The report portrayed an untrained ineffectual department rife with internal division and nepotism, underfunded and ill-equipped, without reliable two-way radios. The newest pumper was ten years old.
In the nineteen nineties the NFD was really four or five departments, headed by Deputy Chiefs who all had their own rules and regulations. It was a hangover from the days that Northampton had public competitions for fire companies who raced each other to be the first to put water on a blaze. It was the age of the Driscolls, of the legendary Jeremiah Driscoll who lead the department for eleven years, and his sons and daughter, all of whom worked for the NFD.
Duggan got away with murder because our politicians remember what a mess the department was before he got here. To his credit, he instituted many reforms and made the department much more professional. He added the position of assistant chief, but he didn’t eliminate any of his deputies. He added a new one.
The bad old days
The other night I took a trip down memory lane, going through old clippings, refreshing my memory on the 1990s, before Brian Duggan came on board. Our politicians have long memories, and over the years they have cut Duggan a lot of slack because he got the department out of politics and put them back in the firehouse putting out fires instead of creating them. Those were the days the men of the NFD hated all politicians without regard for race or color. There were firehouse plotting against mayors, firemen campaigning for insurgent candidates.The following are quotes from the 1997 MRI report.
“The Department has consistently exhibited an unusually cantankerous and sometimes adversarial relationship with city government in general. It has resisted change and several attempts by city administrations to be helpful” Fire fighters need to function as firefighters and fire officers as fire officers and they cease trying to run the city from the central station.” (page 2)
“The fire department can learn a lot from their police counterparts. The fire service is perceived as having too much idle time coupled with a lack of supervision and direction. Conversely police are highly visible, easily accessible and offer “value added” services such as bicycle patrols and other community policing programs. Community confidence in the fire department is critical in their ongoing ability to serve.”(page 7)
The headquarters was the old brick building on Masonic Street that now holds the WoodStar restaurant. The 1872 building was a real slum, but it was a homey kind of slum. Summer nights the big garage doors would be open, and the guys would bring their folding chairs out and watch the girls go by. Up on the fire escape in the rear of the building, they would have the Weber going, cooking sausages and kielbasa for dinner. The rooms where they slept while they were on duty? Don’t ask. The doors were open every night a thunderstorm was expected, since bad drainage in the back parking lot channeled rainwater through the apparatus floor.
“There is danger of men being electrocuted.” said Wallace Stickney of Municipal Resources Inc, of New Hampshire. It was a real scorcher of a report, and lead to Mayor Mary Ford dumping poor Larry Jones as Chief, and naming Ed Passa as acting chief. Larry got caught between the men and the Mayor, and after his dismissal he sued the Mayor and won enough money to get a brand-new pickup with an impolite license plate referencing the Mayor. I don’t remember exactly what it said.
In the 1990s the department was caught in a vicious spiral. Many firemen were out on long term disability claims, and overtime was eating up the budget. There was an archaic state law that injured firefighters and police officers could receive up to 114 per cent of their pay, free of state and federal taxes, until they either retired of returned to duty. Why bother to come to work? One of the Driscolls worked a broken toe into a two years vacation. The city could only field ten men to the shift, way down below the danger point. On June 29, 1995, when the available crews were out fighting brush fires caused by a train, there was only one person left in the firehouse: the mechanic Kevin Driscoll. There was a fire at 250 State Street, so Kevin took the pumper to the scene. A cat had knocked an incense burner onto a couch, touching off a smoky fire. Kevin made sure no one was in the building, started the pumper, laid out the hoses, loaded them, and waited for help, which finally arrived from Mount Tom junction where a crew had just put out another brush fire.
I was a member of the City Council’s fire committee from 1991 to 1993 and we would meet every month in Larry Jones office, and boy, the fur would fly. Members of the on-duty crew would crowd in and the voices would rise. Like the DPW, the fire department was still furious about the personnel cuts made by Proposition 2 and 1/2, which put a permanent crimp in the ability of the city to raise money without going to the voters.
For the Future?
We need a progressive department that embraces new ideas. Easthampton and Amherst have a more modern and economical personnel structures that have a Fire Chief and one or two deputies that deal with administrative work that is better accomplished by people working a regular 8:30 to 4:30 work week. The business of firefighting should rely on work groups lead by captains or lieutenants. Modern departments are all muscle, with lots of feet on the ground. And most modern fire departments like Amherst have a call force that they can call on in emergencies; a list of trained firefighters to supplement the regular crews.
Firemen tend to be conservative by habit; our department is wedded to the old ways. Woods around here are often tinder dry. Much of our new construction is in forested upland areas of the city, built at the end of ascending driveways. The hydrants in the outlying parts of Northampton are beautifully painted, but many of them have inadequate pressure. The department has lost buildings because they don’t know where there’s available water that can be tapped from swimming pools, creeks, or ponds.
National standards for departments serving rural areas calls for departments to survey and evaluate all water sources, such as creeks and swimming pools. They haven’t done it. The Chief pledged many years ago, to undertake a major push to encourage in-house sprinkler systems. To my knowledge, nothing has happened. Recent fires on Whittier Drive and in Southampton have given us eloquent evidence of how quickly fires can go out of control in relatively new homes with open floor plans and cathedral ceilings. In the Whittier blaze the intensity of the blaze, which started in the garage, was comparable to an aircraft blaze. You don’t fight aircraft fires with water, you use foam, which smothers the blaze. More and more rural fire departments are equipping their lead pumper with air-foam apparatus. I talked to one of its leaders recently about equipping a Florence engine with foam and he said, “Oh, that’s a controversial business.” Chesterfield has got foam, Easthampton can’t wait until there is enough money in the budget for a retrofit, but Northampton? It is stuck in the past.
The Top One Hundred
Topping the list is Joe Konkas, the recently retired number two guy at the police department. Joe was the guy who was responsible for signing the pay chits of Maryanne Keating. The Scott Savino/Maryanne Keating affair cost the city a lot of money and embarrassment, but he was allowed to retire with out having his wrist slapped. Joe always showed up, probably never took a sick day. Dead or alive, he was there at the station. And under a policy now scrapped, he could take a lump sum payoff of 1/3rd of his accrued (but never used) sick pay, when he retired.
What strikes me when you look at this list is the disparity between men and women’s salaries. The bulk of the women supervisors working for Northampton city government work in education, and their names show up most frequently in the lowest 25% of the top one hundred.