The Warwick Fire Department was “weeks” away from taking over EG fire dispatch when the whole plan came to a halt, said Fire Chief Peter Henrikson in an interview Tuesday.
Henrikson had a pile of papers to document what took since 2009 to transfer East Greenwich fire dispatch duties to Warwick because the EGFD has come under fire lately .
East Greenwich Fire Commissioners voted to end dispatch consolidation talks with Warwick at their meeting on Jan. 24.
Henrikson said the impetus for moving dispatch to Warwick was to free up a firefighter from doing dispatch. Paid firefighters covering dispatch dates back to the1980s. A internal study from 1990 recommended moving a non-firefighter (who would be paid less) into that position.
That idea was never acted on during contract negotiations.
The idea to move EGFD dispatch to Warwick came from former EGFD Commissioner Christine Mattos. Then-EG Fire Chief John McKenna met with then-Warwick Fire Chief Kevin Sullivan and Mayor Scott Avedisian in March 2009. A letter from Warwick city attorney Diana Pearson after that meeting states:
“As discussed and agreed, it would make a great deal of financial sense to shift your fire dispatch needs to our facilities and staff.”
A memo from Chief McKenna to the EG Fire Commissioners dated Jan. 25, 2010, outlines the expenditures needed to make the move: $42,000 for EGFD and $28,000 for WFD. This does not include two microwave dishes (one for each town) that were added as an extra layer of backup.
A letter from Feb. 1, 2010, from McKenna to Sullivan reads: “The City of Warwick and the East Greenwich Fire District have come to a mutual agreement to expedite the completion of joint dispatch.”
During 2010, equipment was purchased and installed in fire facilities in both Warwick and East Greenwich. But renovations at the Warwick Fire Dispatch Center on Sandy Lane slowed activity. A letter Feb. 23, 2011, from Sullivan to then-EGFD Commission Chair Doug Axelsen laid out a timeline for final equipment installation and adjustments that suggested Warwick would be ready to take over dispatch by June 2011.
That letter also asks Axelsen for a letter “telling us the status of the talks between the East Greenwich Fire District and the Town of East Greenwich with regard to the fire department being moved under the direction of the Town Manager.... We are concerned as to what is the status of those discussions.”
At that point, the Town of East Greenwich was not in merger talks with the Fire District, but a year later the Town Council put a question on the ballot asking if the Fire District should merge with the town. Those plans are now moving forward.
Sullivan retired July 30, 2011. According to Henrikson, everything froze after that. The new Warwick fire chief, Edmund Armstrong, could not be reached for this article. According to Mayor Avedisian earlier this month, Armstrong wanted to review the entire department before deciding whether or not to take on EG dispatch duties.
Meanwhile, the EGFD and the firefighters union worked out an agreement last summer so that working dispatch would be considered “collateral duty,” no longer part of the firefighters' assigned duty. Firefighters would cover dispatch in their off time and be paid at a dispatch rate rather than the higher firefighter pay. That freed up the district to add a firefighter to help cover Station 2, a longtime goal.
For Henrikson, the frustration has been Warwick’s lack of response. “Four years. How much longer do we have to wait?” he said Tuesday. “To this day, they haven’t told us why.”
He said they'd retrieved some equipment from Warwick already, about $12,000 to $15,000 worth. One decoder was being used by Warwick; Henrikson said he would bill Warwick for that. The big-ticket item is the microwave system, which cost $54,000. The vendor needs to remove those dishes. Henrikson said he's looking into re-selling them.