The Providence Firefighters’ Teach-In: Discussing the Public Alarm

The focus of yesterday’s firefighters’ union teach-in was on the cancer situation facing three Providence firefighters; we’ll take that up directly in the next post. However, for better or for worse, attention became focused on Local 799’s job-action because of its potential to shut down a statewide Homeland Security drill, a possible outcome that alarmed many citizens and public officials alike. I had the opportunity to ask Local 799 President Paul Doughty about the perceptions that were created…
Anchor Rising: Sometimes things quoted in a newspaper read a little more harshly than they were said. In explaining your original job action plans, you said something to the effect of “how can we take care of you, when you won’t take care of us”. Do you understand how that might come across as frightening to the average citizens who depend on you guys?
Local 799 President Paul Doughty: I do. The context I was trying to put it in was this: In the Providence Fire Department, it is an extra responsibility, a voluntary responsibility, to join the department’s hazardous materials team. As a regular firefighter, you are routinely exposed to carcinogens, but as hazardous materials technician, it’s even worse. You may be going into situations involving high concentrations of known carcinogens, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and the like. You have to go in and mitigate this situation.
When I made the comment, I was saying how can you ask firefighters to do this extra but important work as hazardous materials technicians, knowingly sending them into carcinogen-laced atmospheres, but then telling them if they get cancer, they are on their own. That’s what I meant. How can we provide a valuable and important service to the community, but if we get sick from that exact thing that we’ve agreed to do, not be allowed the cancer disability?
AR: You’ve also said that it was never your intention to shut down the statewide drill.
PD: That’s correct.
AR: If that was the case, why did you feel it was necessary make the comment to the effect that this drill wasn’t too important to improving the tactical-level response of firefighters?
PD: Again, that was a question about what the drill was going to do. As a street-line firefighter, for my exact membership, the skills that they’re going over are tactical skills, getting in the suits and dragging people out. It’s stuff that we’re very comfortable with and we’ve done in other drills. For us, it wasn’t a high-level drill. But I do recognize that my members benefit from state assets and Federal assets exercising together and coordinating their efforts.
AR: Last question. I’m a silver-lining kind of guy. Do you think that one of the reasons this snowballed like it did was because you misjudged, just a little, how seriously the public takes disaster training and preparation, and how clued in they are to how important it is?
PD: I will say yes directly to that question. And I think I also misjudged how much they care about our issues. I think there is an awareness of the cancer issue, and I think the public is concerned about it. Maybe I would have done better, just to raise the single issue. It’s just that dealing with the Mayor has led to an unbelievable level of frustration.

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