The New Haven fire union has withdrawn its appeal to the state labor board to investigate Deputy Director of Emergency Operations Rick Fontana’s conduct during several emergency situations.
The decision came after members of the fire union and Fontana’s union, Local 3144, reached an agreement regarding his service at a meeting Wednesday night. It was the last of three meetings between union representatives that have taken place over the past month. City officials were also present, but mayoral spokesman Laurence Grotheer did not respond to requests for comment Friday afternoon on their role during these meetings on the mayor’s opinion.
The fire union brought the case against Fontana because many firefighters believed that he had acted unprofessionally and rashly during emergency situations, Ricci said.
According to the agreement, Fontana will no longer be able to go to emergency scenes with lights and sirens, have access to the command board and utilize fire ground radio channels, which firefighters use to communicate with one another during emergencies, said Frank Ricci, president of the New Haven fire union. He added that Fontana will also not be allowed to wear white or grey shirts, which are worn by commanding officers, at emergency scenes.
Ricci said he was very pleased with the agreement.
“This agreement is the truest vindication of our position,” Ricci said. “Rick’s actions will no longer place firefighters in harm’s way.”
Ricci explained that, on several occasions, Fontana arrived at emergency scenes and got in the way of firefighters.
During a Jul. 23 fire on Blatchley Avenue, Fontana interrupted communication between firefighters inside and outside a burning building when he made a call to the Red Cross over a fire department communication channel. Ricci cited this as clear evidence that Fontana’s behavior needed to change, though Fontana alleges that a radio malfunction was responsible.
Fontana, who was a firefighter for 30 years before taking his current administrative position, is still allowed to respond to distress calls and arrive at emergency situations.
Fontana said he was happy that the matter, which he called “a distraction,” was closed. Now he and those within the fire department can focus on issues pertinent to their jobs, he added.
Fontana maintains that the complaints against him were a “political smokescreen” by people within the fire department who disapproved of his plans to change the department.
Fontana is a member of the Fire Department Working Committee, which looks at the structure and procedures of the fire department and suggests changes to the mayor. Recently he recommended that the department retire one of its fire engines and substitute it with two new paramedic units, because there are more than enough engines to respond to fire emergencies, but not enough paramedics for medical emergencies, according to Fontana.
“[The fire department] responds to about 25,000 alarms per year, and out of those about 20,000 are medical alarms, yet we have 16 firetrucks and two paramedic units,” Fontana said. “So what does that tell you? We just don’t have enough paramedics.”
Fontana said this paramedic shortage has caused unacceptable drops in the quality and responsiveness of emergency medical treatment and in some cases the fire department has been forced to deploy emergency medical technicians instead of better-trained paramedics.
Fire Chief John Alston, whose first day on the job was this past week, said he could not comment on the situation because the complaints were lodged before his tenure and because he had not yet been briefed on the situation. He also declined to comment on whether the changes proposed by Fontana’s committee would be implemented.
The New Haven Fire Department was founded in 1862.