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Friday, June 27, 2008

Fire marshal office staffing crisis averted

By William Kaempffer
Register Staff
NEW HAVEN
— An agreement between the firefighter union and city administration has pre-empted a staffing crisis in the strained fire marshal’s office, where attrition and downsizing have left the unit with half the staff it had just five years ago — and with more retirements imminent.
The office would have shrunk to four members, and one off injured, when two arson investigators and the deputy fire marshal leave next month.
"We investigate 750 and 800 complaints a year; complete 700 plan reviews; and there are 200 liquor licenses in the city" that require annual inspections, said Fire Marshal Joe Cappucci. "There’s work for eight to 10 people right there."
This week, the union and city reached an agreement to permit temporary transfers to the marshal’s office of three or four firefighters certified to do the job while the city works toward conducting a civil service examination to fill vacancies permanently.
None of the state-mandated training can begin until then, so it could be as long as 18 months — considering time to administer the test and up to a year of training — before the unit is back to full strength.
"This is the top testing priority in the city," said Robert Smuts, city chief administrative officer.
There are four vacancies in the 11-person office and three other members — the department’s two primary arson investigators and the deputy fire marshal — filed for retirement in July.
That’s on top of three positions that were eliminated as a cost-saving measure in 2003, according to the fire union.
"You’re 10 spots down from where you were on June 30, 2003," said Firefighter Patrick Egan, president of the fire union, which he said has pressed the city administration to fill the positions for the last 18 months.
"Ultimately, it would have been much better if these issues were addressed last year when we advocated for them to be addressed. Unfortunately, it fell on the deaf ears of some people," Egan said.
The workload isn’t getting any lighter in the office, with downtown development, including the Shartenberg site, and ongoing renovation at Yale residential colleges and other facilities.
Before the end of summer, Cappucci’s office must inspect the renovated Jonathan Edwards residential college and Yale Art and Architecture building. A facility the size of a residential college might take two to three people 12 hours to inspect.
Yale plans to renovate Morse College in 2009-10, followed by Ezra Stiles College in 2010-11.
"The openings in that office have been vacant for some time and the office is struggling to keep up with the demands of all the construction in the city," said Egan, leading to the agreement with the city.
Smuts said the hope is the three or four people with certification will score high on the promotional list to reduce the training time they would need. Meanwhile, the city planned to contact the department’s court-mandated special master, who signs off on all promotions, to inform him of the temporary assignments.
"We don’t believe we need the special master’s approval to have the 180-day assignment ... but we prefer to touch base with him beforehand because we want to stay on his good side."
In 2004, a Superior Court judge appointed a special master to oversee department promotions following a lawsuit by minority firefighters.

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