Fire Engine Trouble on the East Side

Neighbors and officials respond to January's closing of the Rochambeau and Humboldt fire stations


On Sunday, January 8, the two fire engines stationed in the northern part of the East Side went dark. Reaction across the community, which seemingly began as a collective yawn, is now picking up steam as officials and ordinary citizens raise safety and financial concerns. You might call it YIMBY (Yes, In My Back Yard), but first, a little background.

Closing the Rochambeau and Humboldt fire stations is a by-product of the new firefighters’ union contract that took effect that Sunday after years of contentious negotiations. To save money, the City and union agreed to eliminate two engine companies and one ladder truck to reduce the total number of firefighters on duty at any given time.

Management studies had long ago determined that Providence had more fire apparatus than many cities of comparable size and concluded that we would be adequately protected with fewer engines and ladders.

The decision of which engines and ladder would be deactivated was up to the administration and the numbers pointed clearly toward Engines 4 and 5, according to Public Safety Commissioner Steven Pare. The engines at Rochambeau and Humboldt have historically made the fewest runs in the city, as shown in a presentation made by the commissioner during a December 21 community meeting at Nathan Bishop Middle School. The two engines “responded to a combined total of six percent of the total engine company runs made” throughout the city.

Most Engine Runs for Medical Emergencies
While the studies looked mainly at the need for equipment to fight fires, most of the runs made by Engines 4 and 5 on the East Side have actually been to assist in medical emergencies. More than two thirds of runs from Rochambeau and more than half from Humboldt have historically been to medical emergencies: firefighters working on engines are all trained EMTs and they are very often sent out as first responders to help people in medical distress until the more distant rescue truck can get there.

With two engines removed from the East Side, Pare was questioned about the department’s ability to quickly get to medical emergencies (as well as less frequent fires, of course). He said the department’s research concluded that engines at Branch Avenue, North Main Street and Brook Street would provide coverage with comparable response times for all needs, but he promised in a later interview to keep watch on actual operating statistics going forward. Those statistics will be public information, so we’ll be able to know if it works out as planned.

The commissioner says he’s very confident in the projections for maintaining good response times for medical calls. But if it doesn’t happen, he says it’s possible that one East Side station could be re-opened in a revised alignment of engine locations that would require deactivating a company elsewhere in the city.

Ward 2 City Councilman Samuel D. Zurier was critical of the way information about the decision was revealed, saying he read about it in the newspaper in November. “Upon learning this, I asked the administration to hold a neighborhood meeting as soon as possible” he says, adding with apparent disappointment, “the earliest date I could get was December 21.”

Zurier called the meeting helpful, “but the administration could have done better by holding it earlier, publicizing it more and providing greater follow-up.”

The councilman said he believes the administration decided which engine companies to deactivate “on the merits and without regard to politics.” As to Commissioner Pare’s statement that response times for the entire East Side would comply with the department’s four-minute standard, Zurier says he has heard no reports of slowed response. However he said the decision “should be monitored and changed if data supports it.”

Having heard concern about possible insurance cost increases due to greater distance from the nearest fire station, Zurier checked with his insurer and was told his bill would not go up.

Little Early Reaction
Through the holidays and well into January, there was almost no perceptible pushback against the loss of East Side fire engines. Leaders of the Wayland Square and Summit Neighborhood Associations say they heard almost no comments from their members.

“People seemed to feel that the decision-making process was reasonable and the decision made sense given the usage studies and the fiscal issues behind it,” says Nina Tannenwald, a convener of the Wayland Square Neighborhood Association, following a meeting attended by about ten people.

“SNA as a board has not discussed this issue at all, largely because we have received no complaints or concerns on this matter. But we certainly encourage any neighbors with concerns to bring them forward,” says Dean Weinberg, president of the Summit Neighborhood Association.

In late January, however, a crowdsourcing communication from East Side Monthly to members of both associations and the public safety email list, operated by Cheryl Simmons, began to turn up the heat (but there’s no way to know if these folks would have spoken out in the absence of our request). Here’s a sampling:

“I think they are closing them because there are too many firemen receiving huge pensions... too many on the payroll. Something should be done about that first, then maybe we might have a station open.” Carol L. Delaney
“Nothing beats having a fire department nearby. I don’t think we will get the same level of service from departments further away.” Angela Conte, neighbor of the Rochambeau station.

John Wermer, who lives near the Humboldt station, says his opinion was informed by a very close call two decades ago. “Our house might well have burned to the ground if there had been no close fire station. I am willing to pay more in local taxes if this becomes necessary to keep enough fire stations.”

“I felt safe before, since it was just across the street, but now I don't know how long responses will take.” Marilyn Kagan, neighbor of the Rochambeau station.

“I feel that the loss of the two stations will definitely slow down the service we receive. We need at least one of the fire stations to reopen.” Dorothy Bennett Lampal

And of Course, the Money
The discussion also brought out renewed questioning regarding how much money the City will save through the new firefighters’ five-year labor contract:

“My sense is that the City allocates an excessive percentage of its budget to the Fire Department. Significant cutbacks could be made without affecting core firefighting and emergency services… on balance the cutbacks help start the process of bringing the fire department budget under control.” Robert Berkelhammer, Blackstone neighborhood.

“I believe that people are generally in support of [the deactivations]. They have seen the Fire Department hold the city hostage for years, and people are in support of down-sizing this department that is clearly over-sized.” Dean Weinberg, offering a personal view that does not represent SNA.

“I do not know if we achieved the greatest savings possible, especially in the framework of a five-year contract (rather than the norm of three years), and because the City remains exposed to a ‘back pay’ award in arbitration that was not resolved by the contract. I reluctantly voted ‘yes’ because the agreement allows the administration to move forward onto other projects, rather than to continue the acrimony and uncertainty of the ’interest arbitration’ process and a potentially devastating loss in the Supreme Court.” Councilman Samuel D. Zurier, D-Ward 2

From a public safety or financial standpoint, it’s too early to tell whether this was the right move. More data will be needed, and we’ll be keeping an eye out for that information and for any other reactions from the community.