Fire chief eyes Civil Service exit

  • The Greenfield Fire Department Engine 1 pulls out of the station on Friday. February 8, 2019 Recorder Staff/PAUL FRANZ—Paul Franz

  • The Greenfield Fire Department responds to a flooded house call on Grinnell Street Friday. February 8, 2019 Recorder Staff/PAUL FRANZ—Paul Franz

  • The Greenfield Fire Department. February 8, 2019 Recorder Staff/PAUL FRANZ—Paul Franz

Staff Writer
Published: 2/9/2019 12:03:56 AM

GREENFIELD — Regularly understaffed and facing difficulties in hiring and promoting, Fire Chief Robert Strahan is considering whether it’s time for the department to stop using Civil Service. 

“It’s a very difficult conversation in the fire community, so we’re taking baby steps,” Strahan said at a meeting this week of City Council committee chairs.

Strahan joins Greenfield Police Chief Robert Haigh in considering leaving the Civil Service municipal employee hiring system because it leaves departments mostly with candidates from the Boston area  who may be unwilling or unable to move here for work.  

While the police chief is much more eager for an immediate change, Strahan is in the preliminary phase of seeing if this is worth doing. 

“We have so much talent in Franklin County of firefighters and we just can’t get to them,” Strahan said. 

Departments using the Civil Service exam system require the first responder to work within 10 miles of the fire or police station. When Haigh came over from the Orange Police Department, living about a dozen miles out, he had to move from his home to qualify for the job. 

So while 10 miles in the Boston metro area might translate to a length of time away from the station, in rural Franklin County such a distance is less of a problem. Greenfield and Montague are the only remaining Franklin County towns to use Civil Service.

There are also age limits to when someone no longer qualifies to take the Civil Service exam, along with other rigid guidelines. For some first responders, by the time Civil Service became relevant to their community, they had already aged out of qualification.

“We feel it has hampered our departments and the city,” Public Safety Commission Chairman Butch Hawkins said. 

Strahan stressed the need to hear out his fellow firefighters’ concerns. 

Any firefighter currently under the Civil Service system would be grandfathered in and not lose their protections if a new system came under place, Strahan explained. It works the same for the police. 

Civil Service has historically been seen as a way to ensure qualified candidates are found and promoted for municipal jobs without undue political influence.

Massachusetts also has very robust protections under labor laws, Strahan said, which will protect the firefighters even if they are no longer in their union associated with the Civil Service. 

“I think culturally things have changed a little bit,” City Council President Karen “Rudy” Renaud said about the need for unions like these to protect the worker. Renaud, who works for the Massachusetts Nurses Association, said she thinks a change like this is more amicable in today’s climate. 

At-Large Councilor Ashli Stempel advocated for reform as well, saying the city should be able to hire the best talent, especially when it’s local and just having a tough time moving through the system. 

Precinct 1 Councilor Verne Sund, who was in attendance during the meeting, said he supports looking into a change from cIvil Service. 

It’s also a matter of not only hiring, but promoting, because it takes certain tests to be completed before someone can officially be promoted. Strahan said he has multiple people who are holding “acting” positions. 

“We can’t ignore how Civil Service is holding us back from not only hiring people, but from promoting people,” Strahan said. 

It’s important to Strahan and Haigh to make sure there are rigid hiring and promoting policies that would be implemented and that hiring committees, not just the chief, would be a part of those long-term decisions. 

To extricate the city from Civil Service, it is believed the council would need a two-thirds vote. Typically it has to be removed the way it came in, but it was introduced when Greenfield still legislated under Town Meeting. 

“I will reiterate it will be a difficult conversation for the Fire Department,” Strahan said. 

A public hearing of the Public Safety Commission and Appointments And Ordinances Committee is expected at the end of month or early March, which can move the issue forward. 

Endorsing a chance for the public to be involved in the process, Haigh said, “I think it will be a lot better if the community accepted it.” 

You can reach Joshua Solomon at:

jsolomon@recorder.com

413-772-0261, ext. 264


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