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Conn. FFs union calls for chief to resign over staffing, safety issues

Members of Local 1426 have presented several grievances about Fairfield Fire Chief Denis McCarthy

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Fairfield Fire Chief Denis McCarthy and Fairfield Selectwoman Brenda Kupchick.

Fairfield Selectwoman Brenda Kupchick/Facebook

Journal Inquirer

FAIRFIELD, Conn. — The International Association of Fire Fighters Local 1426 took a vote of no confidence in Fire Chief Denis McCarthy earlier this month and requested his immediate resignation — the latest escalation in a buildup of tensions dating back nearly two years between the union and the town’s head of emergency management. Disagreement between the two sides over staffing levels and whether they could be negotiated in a union contract set off an arbitration process between the town and the fire union that has left personnel concerns unresolved.

“What makes this an unforgivable sin to us is that, for his own betterment, he’s willing to put us at risk,” Bill Tuttle , the president of the fire union, said in an interview. “He’s not going into a fire. He’s not the one that fell through the roof the other day. But he can stand up there and tell people that they don’t need any extra safety.”

McCarthy declined to comment on the vote and his plans. When reached for comment, he cited a written statement he sent media outlets Nov. 3, which recaps the arbitration outcome, reiterates the town’s support for firefighters and describes the union’s case as political.

“Over my two decades as a fire chief, I have consistently prioritized public safety through collaboration with the department, town leadership, relevant boards and commissions,” McCarthy wrote. “A collaborative approach leads to the most comprehensive and responsible outcomes.”

He added that union claims were not compelling enough to prevail in arbitration and said the union was trying to make contract objectives an election issue.

“Contrary to recent public comments, the town has consistently supported the Fire Department’s needs,” he wrote.

Tuttle said 36 of the union’s roughly 100 members were present for the no-confidence vote, which was unanimous among the group.

The union has complained that former First Selectwoman Brenda Kupchick and McCarthy placed more interest in a tight budget than the investments members deemed necessary to achieve industry-standard staffing. The town remains out of compliance with standards set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the National Fire Protection Association .

Tuttle has said hitting those standards would be “exorbitantly expensive” as the department would need 28 firefighters per shift so four firefighters can man each of the town’s seven vehicles. The union came out of arbitration with an award that increased the number of firefighters per shift from 23 to 24. Tuttle said noncompliance is not unusual among local departments.

The standoff over staffing headlined a dozen of grievances the union listed in a letter to McCarthy explaining the impetus behind the no-confidence vote. Among the others were a donation from McCarthy to the Republican Town Committee that triggered a complaint to the State Elections Enforcement Commission and a series of other concerns that range from dispatch center issues to unpaid vacation time.

A complaint Tuttle filed with the SEEC in June states McCarthy donated an item titled “Tour of any Fairfield Fire House " for a silent auction hosted by the Republican Town Committee in April. He said in the complaint that the proceeds from the auction seemed to benefit the RTC, which would violate a pair of state statutes that regulate campaign financing and political activities of municipal employees.

State statute 9-622 prohibits municipal employees from soliciting donations for a political party or committee, and 7-421 restricts them from using their position to affect the result of an election or advising a state or local official to make a political contribution.

A photo attached to the complaint shows the event program for the RTC’s " Lincoln Reagan Dinner and Auction,” which identifies McCarthy as chief alongside the listing for the tour.

SEEC spokesperson Joshua Foley declined to comment on the case, citing the open investigation.

Fairfield’s RTC Chair Melissa Longo said the RTC supports McCarthy and called the no-confidence vote “disgraceful.”

“They (the union) have gone after many elected officials over the years that did not give them what they wanted,” she said in an email. “The time has come to say enough is enough and the tail is not going to wag the dog anymore.”

First Selectman Bill Gerber declined to comment on the conflict.

Kupchick, who now serves on the Board of Selectmen, remains in support of McCarthy. She said he’s exhibited leadership through crises and emergencies, like the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Chief McCarthy has a strong reputation amongst his peers,” she said in an email. “His character and integrity are unwavering.”

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