BURRILLVILLE – The Pascoag Fire District Board of Fire Commissioners has notified 14 firefighters that they are no longer eligible to volunteer or attend training sessions unless requested, and demoted those in department ranks who have served as per diem employees.
The move seemingly comes in reaction to a lawsuit filed in September that alleges the district is violating the Fair Labor Standards Act by having those who serve as paid per diem firefighters volunteer to perform the same type of services. The suit, filed by ten of the per diem workers, charges the arrangement is an illegal pay scheme, and that they’re entitled to compensation under law as they’ve been classified as volunteers while performing identical work.
All PFD volunteers who have done paid work for the department were notified of the change – officially classifying them exclusively as per diem employees – in a letter from Pascoag Chief Michael Dexter on Wednesday, Dec. 28.
“The policy of the Board of Commissioners (is) to prohibit per diem employees from attending volunteer training sessions, or responding to calls as a volunteer, unless specifically directed to respond to an emergency call by the chief,” the letter notes.
Per diem employees, it notes, are also not eligible to serve in an officer position, which, “are reserved for volunteer firefighters,” under commission policy.
The letter was reportedly sent to 14 firefighter/EMTs, five of whom held titles including, “deputy chief,” “captain,” and “lieutenant.” Ten of the same firefighters are plaintiffs in suit, filed in Rhode Island District Court on behalf of the group last year by Warwick-based Sinapi Law Associates, LTD.
Chairman of the Board of Fire Commissioners Christopher Toti said that the, “policy change was enacted for budgetary reasons.”
“A new policy was adopted by the District in November to separate the paid and volunteer portions of the fire department,” Toti said.
Resident Jerilyn Dupuis is among those who have been critical of the decision.
“As a taxpayer and resident in the district of Pascoag, this is of much concern,” said Dupuis this week.
Dupuis noted that without the 14 per diems, the district has just six active on call firefighters. None hold an EMT license and all six have a full-time job outside of the department.
“These six will not always be able and available to respond to all calls,” she said.
Among those effectively demoted by the act is Deputy Chief Richard Peck, a 29-year member of the department who in the past has served as interim chief. The group also includes two firefighter/EMTs who have led the Pascoag Fire Explorers program – offering training to youth in the community – now banned from such training themselves without express authorization.
Toti said that per diem employees that are on shift getting paid may attend training, and that the district still plans to continue the Explorers program. He noted that the chief is expected to present his 2023 list of volunteer officers for approval at the board’s January meeting, as required in the district by-laws.
But Dupuis notes that two other town fire districts – Harrisville and Oakland Mapleville – resolved the same issue several years ago without causing a divide among staff, or creating legal risks and controversy.
In Harrisville, leadership met with members to find a solution, ultimately paying per diems a small stipend when they performed volunteer work to comply with state law. Per diems continue to attend training sessions and hold ranks within the department.
Dupuis said she believes the leadership of the Pascoag department and district have become severely compromised.
“The directive from the board of fire commissioners shows a complete lack of regard for the individuals that elected the board as well as the rest of the town of Burrillville and the surrounding communities,” she said. “Their actions now put the safety of the community in jeopardy. Taxpayers need to get involved.”
Toti, however, said that the commission does not expect to see a decrease in fire service protection to residents.
“This policy change is being enacted in conjunction with a recruiting effort to bring in additional volunteers to fill out the ranks,” said the chairman.
The PFD Board of Fire Commissioner’s next meeting is scheduled for Monday, Jan 9 starting at 7 p.m. at the station at 141 Howard Ave.