Fire Chief Len Albanese had his contract renewed for another three years by City Manager Tom Ambrosino.
Albanese came to the City in 2016 from North Providence after a search committee chose several finalists, including some internal candidates. His contract was set to expire in June 2019, and Ambrosino said he is very pleased with the Chief’s work over the past two years.
“The chief and I began discussions about an extension, and we recently agreed on this new three-year term,” wrote Ambrosino. “I have been extremely satisfied with Chief Albanese’s leadership and management of the Fire Department since his arrival in 2016. I believe this extension is fully justified.”
Albanese, a resident of Charlestown, will get a pay increase of 3 percent in the first year of his contract. In the following two year, upon a review by Ambrosino, he is entitled to up to 3 percent each year as well.
The Chief will get 25 days of vacation per year, and can carry over five weeks of unused vacation time from one year to another. He may not, however, carry more than 10 week maximum of vacation time.
He also gets 15 sick days per the contract, as well as an automobile.
The new contract will begin on July 1, 2019.
Saying he is disappointed with the Council’s posture toward the Fire Department during last week’s successful $100,000 budget cut to his department, Chief Len Albanese said the Council missed an opportunity to help bring the Department forward.
The Council, particularly Council President Damali Vidot, called for the cut and said the Fire Department overtime budget had requested an increase. She and others felt like that number – which in the past has been described as being abused – should be doing down.
Albanese said it wasn’t fair, and he said he Council hasn’t listened to his calls for an appropriate percentage of funding and more staffing.
“I’m disappointed with the cut that was made and the comments made by Council President Vidot,” he said. “This year we made budget. I told the Council that if they properly funded the Fire Department we would do our best to live within that range, and we delivered. We require no supplemental funding to finish the year.
“I have advocated for more staffing since my first month on the job,” he continued. “We have acquired both the staffing and apparatus to make that happen. Now, we need this additional staffing to translate into more boots on the ground daily. If the recent fire on John Street is not indication enough of that, I’m not sure what is. These major fires in our densely populated neighborhoods are a significant threat to our community. We need as much help as possible in the first 10 minutes of these fires to protect our neighborhoods.”
He said the John Street fire was one where they lucked out because had other calls been going, the staffing might not have been there to respond correctly.
“We are lucky that all of our apparatus was available at the time of that alarm and not tied up on other calls,” he said. “I assure you, the devastation would have been much worse. Twenty homeless could have been 100. We cannot count on luck. We need to be prepared with a reasonable amount of protection based on the threat that we face.”
In 2016, Albanese presented to the Council that the Fire Department budget is around 6.25 percent of the overall budget, and national standard indicate it should be between 6.5-7 percent based on the call volumes.
This year, they would be 6.25 percent and that represents less percentage-wise than in 2016.
“Our overall budget represents only 6.25 percent of the overall City Budget which is actually less percentage wise than we received in 2016,” he said. “Even when you consider that we will eventually take over the new hire salaries in full, we will still be between 6.5 and 6.75 percent of total budget, well within a reasonable and acceptable range.”
For his overtime request, he said he requested a 4 percent increase to the current year’s $1.25 million overtime budget. That, he said, is because salaries increased by 4 percent and so there would be less overtime coverage.
“It’s one thing to hold the line, but to cut our entire request, plus an additional $50,000 that we had this year makes no sense,” he said. “It’s like saying thanks but no thanks.”
City Manager Tom Ambrosino said he believes the chief can make things work despite the cut.
“I was opposed to that cut,” he said. “I think the chief can make his overtime and salaries work. He has some open positions. There are three now…Hopefully he’ll make it and if he can’t, I’ll have to come to the council in the spring and ask for more money.”
Albanese said the cut won’t stop them from carrying out their plan, but it does no one any favors.
“The $100,000 cut will not keep us from continuing on our plan to increase daily staffing, but it doesn’t help,” he said. “With the amount of information we have provided the council, I think those members who voted to support this cut missed an opportunity to show their commitment to protecting our neighborhoods. The $100,000 is literally one-half of 1 percent of the City Budget, but it can translate into having an extra firefighter searching for a trapped occupant. To me, that’s money well spent.”
By Seth Daniel
City Manager Tom Ambrosino and Chief Leonard Albanese hotly disputed claims made by the Chelsea Firefighters Union last week that the City was unwilling to fund kevlar helmets to protect them in an active shooter situation, indicating that the Union would not have even had the ballistic vests that came in handy during the May 22 active shooter situation on Warren Avenue if they had done things their way.
Both contended they did not make comments indicating that the helmets couldn’t be funded because they would likely never be used, but instead fought back the Union’s attempts to not put ballistic vests into service on May 5, as they wanted to get collective bargain a pay raise first.
Had he and the chief not been insistent with the union, Ambrosino said the vests would have been hanging unused in the Station on May 22 when a man shot at police and firefighters on Warren Avenue.
“We did not use those words, never did,” he said on Monday. “The union did not want to deploy the vests until they had all the equipment at once (vests, goggles and kevlar helmets). The Chief’s position was that it’s better to have some protection than not to have any protection right now. We told them we wanted to deploy the vests and then we would deploy the helmets as soon as the budget is passed in July…So, we deployed the vests on May 5. If the union had its way, they wouldn’t have had vests on Warren Avenue that night. The vests would have been sitting in the station. As the chief says, that wouldn’t have been a help to anyone.”
Albanese took great exception to reports in the Boston media and in the Record based on complaints by the Union and its president, Anthony Salvucci, last week in the wake of the incident on Warren Avenue. The Union contended that it wasn’t safe to deploy things piecemeal and that they had been told the helmets would likely never be used. Salvucci suggested that the helmets be made available immediately using Free Cash, rather than after the budget is passed in July.
Albanese said he has made the department into a leader on active shooter training and equipment since coming to the City in 2016.
He said there was really no plan in place at the time, and he quickly made it a priority to get the training and equipment for the department. That priority list included following a funding plan for the safety equipment.
The vests came through a grant to the police and fire departments, with training on the vests coming in April and the vests ready for deployment in early May.
However, he said those vests were nearly put on hold by the Union due to the desire to collectively bargain a pay raise for having members use them.
“On May 4, 2017, I received an email communication from President Salvucci requesting that these bullet proof vests not be placed on the apparatus on May 5 until the union has a chance to Impact Bargain this change,” read a letter from the chief to the City Council. “Secondly, he requested that the Local receive and increase in their Hazardous Duty Pay for providing this service. Because this policy has been in effect since September 2016, and by our mission and duty as firefighters, I could not in good conscience delay the issuance of this equipment that would undoubtedly protect our firefighters should the need arise…Had I granted President Salvucci’s request, these ballistic vests would have been on the floor in my office last Monday, instead of on the bodies of our firefighters.”
Albanese said it is not a funding issue, but one of timing.
“This is not a funding issue,” he wrote. “It is a timing issue. We cannot solve every problem we face at once. The department has set a plan in place and we are following it successfully. We are researching and consulting to make sure we get the right equipment. At the same time we are addressing training needs for the various other threats we face as an All Hazards Fire Department.”
He said he is confident that the Chelsea Fire Department is a leader in responding to such an incident – and in fact they were the first department to use the training that has them protected by a SWAT team when extinguishing a major fire in an active shooter situation.
“It is undeniable that our department was ready to face the challenge of Warren Avenue,” he wrote.
Ambrosino said the helmets are in the Chief’s proposed budget, and will be ordered if the Council approves that budget this month.
By Seth Daniel
Carrying the fire helmet of late Firefighter Peter Kannler, Firefighter Janine Romano led the procession of firefighters and police officers to Woodlawn Cemetery.
The death of Chelsea Firefighter Peter Kannler, which happened way too fast and way too young, while on active duty and from a cancer that is recognized to be a result of his work as a firefighter, has been a wake up call for the Chelsea Fire Department – as union leaders and management leaders in the Department are calling for a change in the way the job is done nationwide.
Kannler, 37, who left two young children and a wife, fought a battle with stomach and esophageal and liver cancer for about one year before passing away on Saturday, Sept. 3. Before his death though, firefighters in Chelsea said he participated in research studies to help prevent ‘active duty’ firefighter deaths from cancer, and like in his life, he wasn’t quiet about what was happening to him.
“He wanted people to know about his cancer and the way it’s affecting our firefighters in Chelsea and beyond,” said Lt. Brian Capistran, president of the local union. “He wanted to prevent as many as possible, no matter what age or gender, from dying of this disease. The way we’re going to honor Peter is our members are going to take a careful look at our operations. Our safety is going to come first. We are going to make a point of decontaminating our equipment after a fire. The days of the macho old firefighter coming out of a burning building covered in soot are over. We have to think differently. A house fire nowadays is a hazardous material situation.
“Pete is going to be missed,” he continued. “I greatly respected him. He and I were built the same way – telling it like it is and dealing with things later. It’s going to take a while for all of us to get over this.”
Added Firefighter Dave Asci, who served for years on Engine 2 with Kannler, “He really put himself out there to do those studies. It was important to him that people know what firefighters are risking.”
Remembering Kannler has brought on a lot of great memories in the firehouse, especially on Engine 2 – likely the busiest engine in the nation per capita, where Kannler worked. He wore a mohawk all the time and was covered with tattoos, including a tattoo of a mustache on his finger that he used to hold on his upper lip – another example of his constant practical joking nature.
He was famous for elaborate practical jokes, including wallpapering the mechanic’s office and repair manuals one night with hundreds of pictures of Justin Bieber.
Asci said Kannler was the type of firefighter that didn’t seek the spotlight and shunned away from commendations or awards, but certainly was a guy you wanted next to you in a dangerous situation. Beyond that, Asci said that despite Kannler’s rough look and “tell it like it is at all costs” personality, he was a caring man – a family man – who was ready to drop everything for his wife and kids and brothers in the fire service.
“I had a rough year last year and in the middle of it, as sick as Peter was, before I could tell him fully what was happening, he wanted to know what he could do to help me,” said Asci. “He was so sick and he just wanted to help other people. That’s the kind of guy he was.”
But there was a serious firefighter side to Kannler as well, and as an instructor at the Mass Fire Academy and a firefighter with great interest in getting equipment and training from Homeland Security, Kannler brought Chelsea Fire into a new era by advocating for resources the Department had never concentrated on. He attended numerous regional meetings and was responsible for securing grants for safety equipment and training.
With that spirit, Deputy Chief John Quatieri and Chief Leonard Albanese have pledged to change their operations and the culture within the firehouse – particularly around safety and decontaminating equipment upon returning from an incident.
“From a command perspective, we need to rotate our firefighters in and out more often and be thinking about their safety,” said Quatieri. “We can’t leave them in a burning building as long as we’ve been doing. They’re getting beat up and exposed to too many of the carcinogens in a modern house fire. We’ve been making do too long and that needs to change.”
Already, the Department has invested in four hydrogen cyanide meters to measure air quality inside a fire, and they will have one member of the crew responsible for monitoring those meters during a fire. If conditions inside are toxic enough, they will remove firefighters from those dangerous conditions – something that many departments are not yet thinking about.
“It’s affecting every department,” said Quatieri. “You just don’t hear about it as much. When firefighters die in a fire, that gets a lot of publicity, as it should, but with the cancer, it happens every day and doesn’t get much publicity.”
Capistran said firefighters are 60 percent more at risk for certain cancers like Kannler had than the normal civilian. That is a little known fact outside the fire service, but even within the fire service the reality of that has been slow to sink in as old habits die hard.
Chief Albanese shared statistics about firefighter deaths, noting that, since 2000, a majority of firefighter deaths have been due to occupational cancers. In 2014, nationwide, nearly 70 percent of deaths were due to those types of cancers rather than direct firefighting work.
“Today’s fire, a lot of what burns is plastics and foams and flame retardants,” said Capistran. “It burns faster and hotter and it’s a silent killer. A lot of what burned back in the day, when firefighters like my dad were on, was wood. We may not have as many fires as back then, but these fires are deadlier and the conditions are more toxic.”
All four Chelsea Fire members said they plan to take Kannler’s message not only to their own crews, but also to the departments around them and those as far as their message can reach.
“Pete left enough information to help the researchers find a cure,” said Capistran. “His message was that he wanted to protect us more, to smarten us up, prevent exposure, decontaminate our gear and, importantly, he wanted it to be a wake up call for everyone.”
After a year of fighting valiantly against a work-related cancer condition, Chelsea Fire officials announced on Saturday night that Firefighter Peter Kannler, 37, had passed away.
It was being considered an active duty death.
Firefighter Peter Kannler.
“It is with deep regret that the department announces the Active Duty death of Firefighter Peter Kannler of Engine 2, after a courageous battle with occupational cancer, at age 37,” read the release from Chelsea Fire Chief Leonard Albanese.
Firefighter Kannler was appointed to the Chelsea Fire Department on October 7, 2007, having transferred from the Westwood Fire Department, where he had served since December of 2005. Firefighter Kannler is survived by his loving wife, Michelle, and two daughters, Kiley, 6, and Hannah, 5.
The calling hours are today, Thursday, Sept. 8, at the Smith Funeral Home, Washington Avenue from 4-8 p.m. Funeral service with Fire Department Honors will be on Friday morning at 11 a.m. at the Woodlawn Cemetery Chapel.