Acrimony between management and staff is hampering the effectiveness of the Woburn Fire Department, according to a consultant hired by the city to assess the department’s operations.
“One of our greatest concerns is the apparent friction between the fire chief and the rank-and-file membership that has evolved over a considerable period of time,” Municipal Resources Inc. wrote in a 180-page report that details the need for a major overhaul of the department.
The consultant said bolstering the relationship between management and other department members is among the many steps needed to bring improvements.
“The discord, distrust, and lack of positive communications that we perceive to exist between management and labor must be overcome in order for the department to move forward,” the report states.
The fire chief, Paul Tortolano, is set to retire at the end of May. He could not be reached for comment.
“The next chief should be expected to build a strong leadership team and the union leadership should be expected to take the lead in letting go of past issues and conflicts,” the report states.
In response to the consultant’s findings, Mayor Scott D. Galvin said, “We are moving ahead in a positive direction and we are going to accomplish things that are in the best interest of the city and the operations of the department.
“Relations between management and unions aren’t always moving in lock step,” Galvin added. Unions “want certain things, and management has to do things that are in the best interests of the department and the city and that aren’t always what the unions want. But we are moving in a positive direction,” he said.
Bill Stukey, a lieutenant in the department and president of the firefighters union, said he agreed that “we have to open up the lines of communication.
“If we have someone we feel is advocating for us, the morale will improve as improvements are made,” Stukey said. “I think that’s the biggest problem. There have been no lines of communication so we haven’t had a voice in anything. . . . When we go to management with a problem, it’s just thrown away and nothing is done about it.”
The consultant also recommended that the city close two of its five fire stations and create a combined dispatch center with the Police Department.
Other recommended changes ranged from upgrades to its aging fire stations and equipment to more comprehensive training, and ensuring that each fire truck have a three-person crew. Most currently operate with two firefighters.
The report was the result of a nearly yearlong study that Municipal Resources undertook for the city of about 39,000 residents. The firm carried out a similar study of the Police Department, but the recommendations were far less sweeping.
The city paid $50,500 for the two reports.
The report states, “Woburn has too many fire stations for the size of the community. Staffing patterns result in a department that is stretched too thin. . . . which severely impacts its ability to provide effective fire protection and emergency medical services.”
Given the condition of the stations, the report states, “now is the ideal time to address this issue.”
The city’s existing stations “are generally small, and are in need of significant repairs and upgrades,” Municipal Resources said, citing such deficiencies as aging heating systems, inadequate training and storage space, and in three of the stations, the lack of a required second means of egress from the second floor.
Municipal Resources cited in particular the poor condition of the Central Square fire station, which “is believed to have been built in the 1800s and originally housed early horse drawn apparatus.”
The report said the city should move immediately to close that station, and plan to replace it and the north Woburn station with a new headquarters station. An additional station would need to close to reach the recommended number of three.
Galvin said he is beginning to plan implementation of key recommendations of the report, some of which will require the City Council’s approval for funding.
“There are lot of things that have built up over the years . . . there’s a lot to address in the Fire Department and it’s come to the point where they have to be addressed,” Galvin said.
“I see merit in a combining of at least two stations,” Galvin said, with the potential of a third if it is practical. He said the consolidation could save money and also provide for better service to the public and greater safety for the firefighters.
The Fire Department, which has 70 uniformed firefighters and officers, currently operates two ambulances providing basic life support.
An outside firm, Armstrong Ambulance, provides more advanced life support.
Citing the call volume and potential for greater revenues, Municipal Resources said the city should fully staff both ambulances — one operates only part of the time — and then move toward implementing advanced life support.
The city’s Fire and Police departments currently do their own dispatching, using uniformed personnel. The report recommends a combined dispatch center at the Police Department that would use civilian dispatchers.
“We will be looking at the numbers on that to see how that works,” Galvin said, but he noted that “you clearly get a better product when you have 100 percent dedicated dispatchers” and that the city would also benefit because police and firefighters would be freed up to perform their normal duties.
Municipal Resources recommended staffing changes that include closing one of the Fire Department’s two ladder companies, fully manning the second ambulance, and ensuring three-member crews on all firetrucks. It also proposed that the city establish the position of assistant fire chief, dedicate one of its captains as the training officer, and — should the department move to advanced life support — establish the full-time position of firefighter/emergency medical services coordinator.
It said two additional firefighter/emergency medical technicians would also be needed to meet its recommended staffing levels.
Ward 2 Alderman Richard Gately said the report shows the Fire Department is “a shambles” due to years of insufficient city support.
“The bottom line is we know we have to invest in the department. . . . It’s going to take a lot of money but we have to make the commitment,” he said.
Stukey said that a new contract for his union recently awarded by an arbitrator includes the requirement that each firetruck be staffed with three firefighters.
He said his union is pleased that the report also supports that staffing level.
He said the report overall “validated what the union has been trying to get across for years,” referring to the need for more resources.