FAIRFIELD – A newly approved union contract gives local firefighters wage increases and additional staffing, but many say it’s not enough and recently urged town officials to reject the deal.
After failing to reach an agreement with the town in 2021, the Fairfield Fire Fighters Association filed for a third-party ruling by an arbitration panel. On July 14, the arbitration panel ruled in favor of the town on wage increases and staffing – retroactively giving Fairfield firefighters a 2 percent salary bump in 2021, and 2.75 percent increases in 2022, 2023 and 2024; and adding one firefighter at the Greenfield Hill fire station.
But at a virtual Representative Town Meeting on Monday, firefighters told officials the new contract is inadequate.
“I think you guys should reject this contract. It leaves us understaffed, it leaves us unsafe,” firefighter Mark Smuda said. “We have hurt someone and sent someone to the hospital at the last two to three fires that we’ve had. We’ve lost a civilian in a structure fire within this administration’s tenure.”
Smuda said growing development in Fairfield is a key reason to boost fire department staffing.
“The increase in building, the increase in fire load, these five-, six-story wood frame buildings – I’m not expecting anyone to have the public to understand the dangers of that,” he said. “We are the professionals telling you that it’s dangerous, and we’re being ignored.”
Since the new contract was approved through arbitration, RTM members said they needed to make a motion to reject the deal, in order to publicly discuss it at the Monday meeting.
Eleven Democratic RTM members supported the motion, but Republicans on Monday questioned the nature of the discussion and interrupted speakers who strayed from the topic at hand.
During the public comment period, the first firefighter who spoke was quickly halted by a town official as he aired grievances with the contract negotiation process.
“After many contracts where our [union] did the right thing and reached a hand out and made concessions at the town in tough times – which led to us lagging behind in wages to comparable fire departments – I expected a fair and honest negotiation in light of our performance,” Justin Crawford said.
Republican RTM member Karen McCormack stopped him, calling for a point of order.
“I want to show respect for the firefighter for coming out tonight,” McCormack started. “But with all due respect, what’s before this body is a rejection of the contract, and I don’t believe that it’s proper to have public comment discuss the process.”
McCormack argued that any discussion beyond that was “completely inappropriate.”
But as the meeting progressed, fire staff continued to ask for additional manpower and share their stories.
“I’m not going to sit here and tell you which way you should vote, whether in favor or against this, but I do want to share a quick anecdote before … someone cuts me off,” firefighter Caitlin Clarkson Pereira said.
While responding to her first structure fire last month, Clarkson Pereira said the department had to enlist help from the Westport and Bridgeport fire departments because Fairfield’s staff couldn’t manage the job alone. Even with the assistance, she said, she was sent to the hospital due to injuries sustained at the scene.
“I’m one of the two firefighters out of the last, what I would consider, three big fires that we had in the town of Fairfield to have to go to the hospital because we were required to do the work of more than is safe for us and, more importantly, safe for our community members,” she said.
Bill Tuttle, president of the local fire union, told RTM members that he was not surprised by the interruptions.
“This is how we’ve been treated all along throughout this process,” Tuttle said. “But yes, you should seriously consider this contract and rejecting it because it still doesn’t give you the proper fire protection that this town and the citizens of it deserve, as well as my firefighters.”
As Democratic RTM moderator Mark McDermott moved to vote on the contract rejection, First Selectwoman Brenda Kupchick asked to speak – a request which was ultimately granted following an argument over meeting procedures.
However, McDermott noted it was hypocritical that Kupchick could discuss the negotiation process after the firefighters were kept from doing the same at the meeting.
Kupchick maintained that the contract approved by the arbitration panel is “fair and reasonable” and asked the RTM not to reject it.
If the RTM decides to reject the contract, Kupchick said, it would go back to another arbitration panel that would only review the information given in the last arbitration. She warned the process would also be costly to Fairfield taxpayers, as the first round of arbitration totalled $251,000.
“I would really, sincerely ask not to reject it because this has been a long, drawn out process – not one that I chose,” Kupchick said. “And I hope that we can just move forward and try to do what’s best for the town and for the people who work for us.”
Democratic RTM member Elizabeth Zezima – one of the 11 sponsors of the motion to reject the contract – told CT Examiner on Monday that the intent was not to reject the contract, but rather allow public discussion as the group does with other union contracts.
“It is our obligation as an RTM to hear, consider and act – which is the language – upon all contracts,” Zezima said. “The bargaining unit has a right to be heard and have their contract discussed in a public forum. The public has a right to hear it.”
Zezima said implementing the firefighters union contract with no public discourse did not seem right to her.
At the end of the meeting, the RTM unanimously voted against rejecting the contract.
Before Tuttle urged RTM members to reject the contract, he told CT Examiner on Monday he was happy the union went to arbitration.
“The reason I’m happy we went to arbitration is because we got way more than we’ve ever offered in negotiations, and significantly more than any other bargaining unit in town who settled with this administration,” he said.
Regarding staffing, Tuttle said he was pleased with the additional firefighter at the Greenfield Hill station, but pointed to an outstanding need for staffing at other stations.
“If you’re now a resident of the Greenfield Hill section, you have a properly staffed fire engine. If you live in Stratfield or Southport, you still have an understaffed firetruck protecting your district,” Tuttle said. “Not exactly sure why they went with just the one.”
In its last best offer to the arbitration panel, the union asked for an increase from the current 17 on-duty firefighters to 18 in 2023, 19 in 2024 and 20 in 2025 to meet National Fire Protection Agency standards. That plan would have cost Fairfield about $4.2 million, according to a summary of the arbitration decisions.
As the firefighters union prepares to negotiate another contract in two years, Tuttle said he’s glad he has a better understanding of the arbitration process.
“It’s one of those things that I think people were just always scared of,” he said. “I actually liked it. You present your evidence, and our evidence was solid.”