UPDATE: FF Newcomb's case is scheduled to be heard before the Rutland Board of Selectmen this coming Mon., March 7, at 5 p.m. at Rutland Town Hall, 240 Main St. The Professional Fire Fighters of Massachusetts is planning a significant presence there as are firefighters from many local departments, but this issue could have implications for anyone who works for a town or city.
Wisconsin's evil genius, Gov. Scott Walker, and his attempts to fulfill the dream of a couple of Texas billionaire brothers bent on setting the middle class in America back by about five decades is getting lots of press right now.
But in a quiet corner of central Massachusetts, equally sinister moves are afoot.
The Rutland Board of Selectmen is waging war on public safety employees statewide by attempting to deny justly-earned benefits to a dedicated town employee who suffered a career-ending injury serving a town resident in time of need.
By extension, the Rutland selectmen are threatening the livelihoods of tens of thousands of Massachusetts public safety workers who may find their towns and cities, like Rutland, ready and willing to turn their backs to employees injured in the line of duty.
Rutland selectmen are splitting linguistic hairs so finely that Bill Clinton would blush, and targetting a hardworking Firefighter/Paramedic who made the mistake, apparently, of giving his employers an honest effort in the misguided belief that Rutland officials would A) obey the law, and B) uphold their end of the bargain.
Anyone who works for a municipality needs to pay attention to what's going on down Route 122A, because in the end, if what Rutland selectmen are trying to do is allowed to stand, precedent may be set and no firefighter in Massachusetts who goes on medical calls will be protected if injured.
First, a little background:
Paul Newcomb is a 43-year-old Firefighter/Paramedic for the Rutland Fire Department.
I've known Paul for a long time, and can vouch that in addition to being a really good guy, Paul is also a hard-working man that any taxpayer would be proud to have on their town's payroll.
A little over a year ago, Paul was lifting a patient on an ambulance call and ruptured a disc in his back, an injury so devastating that surgeons removed the disc, placed titanium rods in his back and implanted a electrical nerve stimulating device in the hopes he might regain some nerve function in his legs.
Worst of all for Paul -- doctors told him his days as a Firefighter/Paramedic were over.
This was not someone who was looking forward to ending his career. From my own personal conversations with Paul over the years before his injury, this was a guy who enjoyed being a firefighter and a paramedic.
After brooding about the end of his career, Paul eventually submitted paperwork for a medical retirement.
Massachusetts firefighters who are injured on the job are covered under a state law commonly referred to simply as "111F," in reference to its location in Chapter 41 of the Massachusetts General Laws.
Under the law, Paul has been able to collect his regular town salary while awaiting news about his medical retirement.
Once approved for a medical retirement, Paul would be able to collect 72 percent of his most recent salary, as per state law.
But an interesting thing happened on the way to Paul Newcomb's well-deserved medical retirement.
Someone on the Rutland Board of Selectmen had an idea:
How about we defy common sense, ignore the laws we're bound to uphold, screw our employee out of 40 % of his annual income while waiting for the formal medical retirement, and in the process hang every cop and firefighter out in the wind?
Well, maybe that's not exactly a quote, but that's what they're trying to do in Rutland.
See, some esteemed Rutland Selectman, echoing President Clinton's famous question ("That depends on what the definition of 'is' is"), stretched the English language to the limits of credulity, reasoning that since Newcomb was on a medical call and not fighting a fire, and since paramedics aren't covered under a firefighter's medical disability law, Newcomb might not be eligible for a firefighter's 111F benefits as he awaits his medical retirement, allowing the town in the meantime to pay him under its workers' compensation policy, which is a cheaper alternative for the town.
It doesn't matter that Paul was working as a Firefighter/Paramedic when injured. It doesn't matter that he was working on an ambulance run by the Rutland Fire Department. It doesn't matter that 95 % of the work of a fire department in a community like Rutland is ambulance work.
Selectmen figured that if they could make that claim, run it up a flagpole and see if anyone saluted, then they could pay Paul under the town's workers' compensation insurance, saving Rutland some money, but resulting in a 40 % reduction in pay to to a man who'd already sacrificed his health permanently serving a town whose leaders couldn't care less.
This is so ludicrous that the mind barely knows where to begin.
For one thing, Paul's job title was clearly "Firefighter/Paramedic."
Secondly, as part of his job Paul was REQUIRED to perform ambulance duties as part of the ambulance service provided by the Rutland Fire Department.
Firefighter disability retirements aren't reserved only for firefighters injured fighting fires. There's actually a separate chapter of state law for that.
Of course, even a cursory review of medical retirement records (they're not hard to find) shows that few firefighters medically retired due to injuries on the job got those injuries at fires.
I wonder if, even in cities like say, Worcester, which doesn't run an ambulance but does provide first responder duties, would the Rutland Board of Selectmen suggest that a Worcester firefighter who suffered a permanent, career-ending injury while on a medical call is also not eligible for 111F while awaiting a traditional medical disability retirement?
What's going on in Rutland is as much a threat to the livelihoods of firefighters and police officers as anything going on in Wisconsin or elsewhere.
Fortunately, other boards of selectmen have tried to pull similar stunts and have failed miserably. Let's hope this one does, too.
The Rutland Board of Selectmen has scheduled a meeting for March 7 to debate the matter further.
If you want to express your displeasure to them directly by letter or
telephone, here is the address for the Rutland Board of Selectmen:
Rutland Board of Selectmen
Attention: Sheila Dibb, Chairman
246 Main St.
Rutland, MA 01543
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