Does arbitration favor firefighters?

A study released in December found Rhode Island’s spending for fire protection remains the highest of any state in the nation.

It’s been that way going back at least 10 years, according to the annual report from the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council, which measured spending per capita and per $1,000 in personal income for fiscal 2016. The fire-protection expenditures that year were slightly more than double the national average.

The Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns thinks one reason is the way arbitration panels that handle firefighters’ contract disputes are set up under state law. The law requires the three-member panels include a bargaining agent for firefighters, an official representing the municipality involved and a third member selected by the American Arbitration Association – if the two sides cannot agree on the third member – and that person shall be the panel’s chair.

The third panel member is supposed to be impartial, but often it doesn’t seem that way, according to Peder Schaefer, the league’s associate ­director.

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“We don’t believe it’s neutral,” he told Providence Business News.

Schaefer said when the Arbitration Association chooses the third member – which happens a lot – that person usually leans toward labor or, in this case, firefighters. The league would like to see the law changed so the Arbitration Association doesn’t pick the decisive third panel member. Instead, maybe the third member could be a retired judge, he added.

The Rhode Island Association of Firefighters did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

The Ocean State is tied with Ohio for having the second-highest concentration of firefighters in the nation. For every 1,000 jobs in Rhode Island, 3.48 are firefighters, behind only North Carolina, which has a 3.54 firefighter concentration, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The median annual wage for firefighters statewide was $56,480 as of 2017. That’s above the nationwide median of $51,930 but not high enough to rank in the top five states, led by New Jersey with a median of $75,880 a year, federal statistics show.

Providence Mayor Jorge O. Elorza thinks the city has too many firefighters, despite lowering the number required to be on duty at all times to 88 from 94 during the city’s last contract settlement with them.

“There are just too many firefighters,” Elorza said last summer. “You compare that with the police department, where there are about 27 police officers patrolling the entire city at any given time – total mismatch.”

Providence last year paid $6.1 million to settle lawsuits regarding firefighter overtime payments.

Derek Silva, president of Providence’s firefighters union, said the department’s staffing levels are in line with what city studies recommend. He insists the numbers of police officers and firefighters in Providence are about the same, but the police department has more divisions and units that aren’t counted as part of patrols.

Scott Blake is a PBN staff writer. Email him at Blake@PBN.com.