BURRILLVILLE – Less than two weeks after informing 14 firefighters that they’d lost their title in the department, the Pascoag Fire District Board of Fire Commissioners has reportedly reversed their position, reinstating ranks of several longtime per diem staff members.
The firefighter/EMTs reportedly learned of the change from the attorney representing them in a lawsuit challenging the district’s payment policy for per diem staff. The suit, filed in September, alleged that the district was violating the Fair Labor Standards Act by having those who serve as paid per diem firefighters volunteer to perform the same type of service.
In late December, the 14 firefighters received a letter from Pascoag Fire Chief Michael Dexter informing them that they were no longer eligible to volunteer or attend training sessions unless requested, and that going forward, officer positions would be reserved exclusively for volunteer firefighters.
The news meant that several longtime members of the department, including Deputy Chief Richard Peck, would lose their title. And critics of the decision noted it would leave just six active on call firefighters able to respond to emergencies, all of whom lack an EMT license and have a full-time job outside of the department.
Residents and others opposed to the decision vowed to attend the commission’s meeting on Monday, Jan. 9, but the issue was not posted on the agenda or discussed by the board, leaving only a public comment period to voice concerns. Exchanges became heated as commissioners told those in attendance they could not respond to questions on topics that weren’t posted on the agenda due to state law.
“I’m on a couple of other boards as you already know, and this is way out of control,” said Commissioner Raymond Trinque, who also serves on the Burrillville Town Council, as many can be heard speaking out – and even shouting – in the background.
The wife of one volunteer firefighter read a statement regarding the commission’s decision.
“This letter is only another means of retaliation against those involved in a recent lawsuit against the district involving an illegal pay scheme,” said Jerilyn Dupuis. “These men and women earned their rank.”
“How is it that our neighboring districts of Harrisville and Oakland Mapleville resolved the issue as it was illegal?” Dupuis asked.
NRI NOW reported last week that the Harrisville Fire District addressed the issue of pay for per diems around five years ago by providing a small stipend when they performed volunteer work, in order to comply with state law. Per diems in Harrisville continue to attend training sessions and hold rank within the department.
Video of the full Pascoag Fire Commission meeting was published by resident Norman Desjarlais, and can be found on his Facebook page here.
On the day following the meeting, Tuesday, Jan. 10, the controversial new policy was apparently reversed.
Firefighters were advised of the reversal and told that they were again allowed to respond to calls and training, and that their ranks had been reinstated by attorney Richard Sinapi of Sinapi Law Associates, the Providence-based firm representing them in the lawsuit.
Sinapi told NRI NOW Friday that the commission met in executive session after a discussion between him and the district’s attorney, and he was informed Tuesday that the policy had been reversed.
“We’re in negotiations to try to resolve this amicably,” Sinapi said. “We have submitted a detailed proposal and we’re waiting for a response.”
No official communication regarding the policy change has been sent out by the district.
Asked about the reversal of the short-run policy, Fire Commission Chairman Christopher Toti responded, “At this point, I am unable to comment.”
NRI NOW will update this story if more information becomes available.
Editor’s note: The above article has been edited to note that Dupuis’s husband is a volunteer, not a per diem firefighter. It has also been edited from its original version to include comment from attorney Richard Sinapi.
Thank you for reporting on this. I personally feel, that the decision of the Board in late December seriously endangered the safety of taxpayers. Even now with the reversal of that situation, Pascoag Fire Department is short staffed, and at times needs to make heavy use of mutual aid. While I thank neighboring departments of course to render mutual aid, it also means that Pascoag District is losing revenue. I hope that many taxpayers will come to the next Open Meeting, and addressing their concerns.