City of New Bedford Must Bargain About Impacts of Permanently Decommissioning Fire Engine, and Respond to Information Request

August 08, 2021

A hearing officer of the Massachusetts Department of Labor Relations agreed with the New Bedford Firefighters, Local 841, IAFF, that the City of New Bedford unlawfully decommissioned Engine 11 without first bargaining to impasse or resolution about the impacts of this decision. The City did not appeal this decision.

The City long operated 10 front-line fire apparatus at seven stations throughout the City. The CBA requires that each apparatus be staffed with at least four firefighters. For several years, the City declined to provide sufficient funding to fully staff all 10 apparatus. Instead, the City would remove, or "blackout," an fire apparatus for some or all of a 24-hour shift. Eventually, the City "blackedout" an apparatus for the entire day, and then rotated the particular apparatus that was blackedout each day. For instance, one day Engine 11 would be blackedout for one 24-hour shift, followed by Engine 9, and so on. This practice of "rotating blackouts," while an unacceptable reduction of fire staffing, nonetheless evenly distributed the impacts throughout the workforce. These impacts include reassigning firefighters scheduled to work on the blackedout apparatus and reassigning the jurisidiction to the the blacked out apparatus to other stations.

The New Bedford Firefighters Local 841 long protested these blackouts, through social media and public comments. The Local consistently demanded that the City fully staff all 10 front-line apparatus. In 2018, the Union posted every day on social media about the blackouts, notifying residents about the areas of the City with reduced or delayed Fire Department services. Tensions only increased in response to two tragedies in late 2019. In October and then December 2019, two individuals lost their lives during two separate fires. In both cases, the fire apparatus closest to each fire was blacked out, which necessarily delayed the Fire Department response. Seconds make a significant difference in the ability to suppress a fire and rescue inhabitants.

These tragedies, which perhaps could have been prevented by full staffing, led the Union to escalate its continued objections to rolling blackouts through news media, social media and protests at Fire Department and Mayoral events.The Union continued to demanded that the City end the rolling blackouts through full staffing of all 10 front-line apparatus. The Union never said the solution was to permanently decommission one apparatus.

As the Hearing Officer found: "Mayor Mitchell subsequently notified [Fire Chief] Coderre to decommission Engine 11 after he had observed a demonstration protesting the blackouts that unit members attended outside of the theater where his inauguration was taking place on January 6, 2020." The City falsely claimed that the Chief called President Sylvia to notify him of the decision and that the the Union chose Engine 11 to be decommissioned. As the Hearing Officer wrote, "I find plausible Sylvia’s contention that the Coderre had not contacted him on January 6, 2020 before the mayoral inauguration that evening because Sylvia would have announced the shutdown during the January 6, 2020 demonstration and during his various media interviews that night."

This decommissioning meant that instead of evenly distributing workload from blackouts throughout the City, the stations closest to Engine 11 alone would be forced to handle an increase in service calls, including ambulance calls to a high-rise. This also meant that the response to calls within the former area of Engine 11 would increase, thus increasing safety risks to firefighters who did respond.

The Chief issued a statement, drafted by the Mayor's office, that announced the decommissioning of Engine 11. Local 841 demanded to bargain and filed an information request of the City. The City never responded to the information request and simply implemented its decision. Local 841 then filed the charge of unfair labor practice. Attorney Patrick Bryant represented the Local during the ULP process.

The Hearing Officer agreed that the City had an obligation to respond to the information request, even if to simply report that it lacked any information responsive to their request. She further held that the permanent decommission of Engine 11 had an impact on workload of firefighters because of the significant increase to the workload of adjacent companies. Even though the evidence was abundant that the Mayor's decision was motivated by spite toward the Union's sustained protests of the rolling blackouts, the Hearing Officer determined that the permanent decommissioning of Engine 11 did not qualify as retaliation as defined under the statute. In order to qualify as illegal retaliation, the action must be more than increased workload, such as a loss in pay, position, or status.

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