Guest MINDSETTER™ Tom Kenney:  Providence Firefighter Stress

Thursday, April 21, 2016


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People ask me why I care so much about the Providence firefighters’ work schedule now that I’m retired and will never have to work it. The simple answer is that I love the fire service, in general, and the Providence Fire Department, in particular. Much in the same way that a Marine still loves the Corps and what it stands for long after he has retired. Once a Marine always a marine. Once a firefighter always a firefighter.

I also love and respect the men and women of the department who so willingly put their lives on the line day in and day out. The general public seldom sees the many times and many ways they risk their lives and health and safety in the performance of their duties. I’ve seen it, I’ve lived it and I know how much more these guys and girls are in danger because of this new horrendous schedule.

It’s hard to imagine how anyone came up with this 3-platoon system. After all, it’s the only one of its kind in the country. Obviously, to me anyway, someone from outside the fire service community with absolutely no experience in doing this job was the one who came up with this. Someone who has no idea how important a 3 or 4 day break between working tours is to overall health and recuperation. Paul Doughty (president of Providence Firefighters’ Local 799), Paul Valletta (president of RI State Association of Firefighters) and myself have already pointed to the link between this new schedule and the inevitable spike in firefighter injuries on the PFD. I’d like to take this opportunity to point out another inevitable danger facing these over worked firefighters and officers – stress.

In study after study firefighting has been listed in the top 5 most stressful occupations – mostly in the top two. It stands to reason that busier fire departments expose their firefighters to even higher levels of stress than the average department and the Providence Fire Department has been acknowledged to be one of the busier fire departments in the country.

Now, before any of you keyboard hero, union haters post one of your usual ignorant comments about shopping, eating and watching television let me post an example of how the actual stress levels we may face on any given day differ from the general public in our respective workplaces. For instance, a financial advisor (a stressful occupation) may have to choose from two financial plans for his client. 50/50, right? If he chooses the wrong one his client doesn’t do as well financially or may even lose money. On the other hand, as a fire officer, I may have two options as to where to enter an occupied building witch is on fire – first floor or second floor. 50/50.

Well, I had that choice years ago and it still haunts me to this day. I was instructed to take my company to the first floor but when we got on the porch I almost decided to take my crew to the second floor instead because there was heavier fire on that level. There was also fire on the first floor, however, and our procedure was to never pass fire on a lower floor to chase heavier fire above, so we entered the first floor. As it turned out there was a mother and four kids just inside the other door at the bottom of the stairs. My head knows that they were already dead when I chose the other door but my heart wishes I had opened the one to the upper floors instead.

Stressful decisions like that tend to stay with you for a lifetime but other choices or decisions can pile up if you don’t have the proper down time to recover.  That’s when having 3 days off between work tours is a life saver. The present schedule gives them only one full day away from the firehouse, and all its stresses, between work tours. This doesn’t provide ample time to rest and rejuvenate body and mind before beginning the cycle all over again.

It’s my belief that the next thing to take its toll on Providence firefighters will be cardiac related incidents triggered by over work and on-the-job stress. Despite what Elorza and Pare state, this recent rash of injuries and this prediction that stress will begin to take its toll were/are very easy to predict. Over work in a stressful environment will always take its toll and simply saying that public and firefighter safety is a priority doesn’t make it so.

Elorza continues to state that safety is not being jeopardized and his puppet, Pare, just nods his head in agreement, in spite of the fact that he knows in his heart that firefighter and public safety are definitely being jeopardized. He’s being rewarded with a $150,000 a year job. I guess that’s his price for integrity. It seems as though this constant battling with the firefighters may be getting to him, however, as I’ve heard that he’s already cut a deal to abandon his job in Providence in favor of the Town Manager’s job in Narragansett. Good luck to my friends in South County!

As for Elorza, he’s living in some fantasy land. He stated on WPRI’s Newsmakers program last week that when he leaves City Hall “in seven years” he’ll leave the next mayor a better City. Are you kidding, Jorge? You’ll never get through another election and you’ve been making decision after decision that has been in the worst interest of the City’s financial interests.


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