In an interview with the News on Monday, Rick Fontana, the deputy director of New Haven Emergency Operations, responded to accusations leveled by the New Haven Fire Union in a complaint to the state that Fontana has acted unprofessionally in emergency situations.
Fontana, who served as a firefighter for 30 years before accepting his current administrative position, said these claims were made in an attempt to discredit him.
The fire union’s grievances with Fontana, which were first vocalized to state officials in August, regard his behavior during fire emergencies. Fire Union President Frank Ricci told the News that Fontana’s actions have caused unnecessary chaos during delicate and dangerous situations. Ricci explained that Fontana has responded to emergency calls, tried to put out fires and, most egregiously, interrupted a communication channel between firefighters inside and outside a burning building during a fire on Blatchley Avenue on July 23. He added that these are not the responsibilities under Fontana’s position, and that Fontana’s uncalled-for heroics jeopardize the lives of firefighters.
“This is a dangerous job,” Ricci said. “It needs not to be made more dangerous by an individual who wants to play firefighter.”
Fontana said these claims are “bogus” and that responding to emergency calls is indeed one of his responsibilities as deputy director. The accusations, he said, were leveled by people within the fire department who hold personal grudges against him because of his attempts to make changes to the structure of the department.
Fontana explained that Mayor Toni Harp tasked him and several other emergency operations and city government administrators with examining the efficacy of the fire department. They found that the department would benefit from the removal of one of its 16 fire engines from service and from adding two paramedic units to the two that are already in operation, Fontana said. He explained that the department gets about 25,000 calls for help a year, and that of those calls, roughly 20,000 are medical-related and 5,000 are fire-related. As a result, the department has more than enough fire engines to take care of fire emergencies, but has a shortage of paramedic units, which, according to Fontana, has led to an unacceptable drop in the quality of care and the responsiveness of the department to these emergencies.
“You have some places in New Haven, like in Westville, where paramedic response time can be 12 minutes,” Fontana said. “That’s unacceptable.”
He added that, because the two current paramedic units are stretched so thin, the department has had to ask neighboring towns for emergency medical assistance on occasions and has had to substitute well-trained paramedics for emergency medical technicians. Fontana insisted that these changes would not cause any firefighters to lose their jobs or their employment benefits.
The fire union brought this complaint to the attention of the state, according to Fontana, because firefighters do not like the idea of an outsider changing their department’s composition.
“[Firefighters] don’t like it when someone says, ‘Listen, we need to do things differently,’” Fontana said.
He added that, as a former firefighter, he was familiar with this sentiment, but that “they don’t make the policy.”
The fire union officially petitioned city and state officials in August at the State Labor Board and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to stop Fortana from responding to emergency calls, after making the situation known to the state earlier that month. The union’s appeal to the city yielded no tangible results. City spokesman Laurence Grotheer said he could not comment on the specifics of the allegations regarding Fontana’s actions because formal complaints had been filed.
However, when asked whether Fontana’s job was in jeopardy, Grotheer said Fontana “remains in good standing in terms of his employment status.” But Ricci said he hopes Fontana will be forced to stop responding to emergency calls while the board investigates the union’s claims.
The New Haven Fire Department was founded in 1862.