By Thomas N. Warren
On January 3, 2015, an old friend, mentor, and fire chief passed away. He died of cancer, as so many firefighters do and, in his case, it was a disease he fought to bring to the attention of our profession many years ago. As one might expect, his funeral service was well attended by fellow chiefs, officers, and many firefighters who had never met him. He retired in 2002, before many of the firefighters in attendance began their careers.
Battalion Chief James Bennett Jr. was a firefighter’s firefighter in the Providence (RI) Fire Department (PFD). He began his fire service career in 1968 serving in many of the storied fire companies in the PFD; companies such as Engine 3, Engine 10, and Battalion 2. They were all very busy fire companies that saw the lion’s share of fires in the 1970s and 1980s. During his career, he received several departmental citations and awards for his actions at fires and other emergencies. He was generous with the skills he had honed and the knowledge he had gained by sharing these skills and knowledge with the trainees in the PFD training academies. If you asked him for advice, you were sure to get a detailed analysis on whatever subject of which you were unsure. He was truly a student of the fire service during his career, always learning and evolving as a fire officer.
Chief Bennett was no pushover; he expected every firefighter under his command to perform on the fireground as he should. He expected everyone to do his job, and do it to perfection. That was what we were there for, after all; to do the job that the taxpayers paid us to do. He always exhibited great compassion for the victims of the many fires to which they responded, and he addressed their needs in any way he could, particularly as a battalion chief.
As impressive as his professional fire service career was, it was not what I remember the most about him. There was another side to Chief Bennett that carries on today in the PFD as well as many other fire departments around the country. He, as did many others of that time, took their compassion for people and fought for those under his watch. He did this by serving as president of the Providence Firefighters Local affiliate of the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF). He was a labor leader whose strength was rooted in his compassion for his fellow firefighters at a time when firefighters were not compensated well and the dangerous conditions of a firefighter’s work were largely ignored, unknown, or misunderstood. The situation in which firefighters found themselves was not limited to our city but was instead common among our profession. For Chief Bennett, it was beyond fair pay and benefits; it was about the safety of our firefighters in the field.
Many of the benefits and compensation packages we feel are reasonable and part of our modern fire service were fought for during the 1970s and 1980s; they didn’t always exist. Cities and towns have always had budget problems; this is not something that only became apparent after the Great Recession that began in 2007. Cities and towns have always had budget constraints and these issues—whether real or imagined—have always been an obstacle for firefighter labor leaders to overcome. Achievements such as reducing the number of hours firefighters work, vacation time, overtime rates, paid holidays, nonbiased promotional systems, collective bargaining, staffing apparatus, grievance procedures, paid sick days, injury pay/benefits, and even maternity leave are things that many young firefighters don’t think much about and view as simply reasonable workplace policies. I guess it is normal not to concern yourself too much with things that were in place when you began your career.
As important as improving the pay and benefits was at that time, it was equally important to look at firefighter safety. Labor leaders had a lot of work to do to catch up to the private sector in terms of pay and benefits and, for the most part, they were successful in bringing the firefighting profession in line with the prevailing wages in the private sector. The health and safety of firefighters was not yet the discipline we know it is today and, in many cases, labor leaders and management didn’t give it much thought. Chief Bennett saw the health and safety of firefighters differently; he saw that the health and safety of firefighters was not a monetary item to be debated as a cost but more of a responsibility of everyone to ensure that firefighters could expect to live a healthy life. Their health should not be squandered by neglect or indifference.
Chief Bennett was the first labor leader in the state of Rhode Island to establish a permanent elected position of Health and Safety Officer in his local union. This new position would place his firefighters’ health and safety on equal footing with every other issue that his labor organization faced. At the same time, health and safety initiatives were beginning to take shape on a national level. The IAFF, International Association of Fire Chiefs, the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, the National Fire Protection Association, and other organizations were now focused on firefighter health and safety.
One of the issues that Chief Bennett felt passionately about was the many diseases that firefighters were contracting during their careers. Early retirements were occurring too often, and firefighters were becoming sick from exposures on the fireground. We were not only suffering from broken bones and burns anymore; far more sinister injuries awaited us in those burning buildings. Chief Bennett sought not only to improve our equipment but worked to developed policies and procedures that were designed to protect firefighters from the unseen dangers lurking in the smoke-filled buildings.
Chief Bennett was a pioneer in the field of firefighter health and safety for his firefighters. One of his earliest accomplishments was the installation of exhaust fans on the apparatus floors of the firehouses. This was the first step in the evolution of the sophisticated exhaust evacuation systems we see today. Nationally, there were many other people who felt the need to advance the cause of health and safety in the fire service, but he was the only labor leader who introduced and pushed this concept for the benefit of his firefighters in his labor organization. I suppose he knew what he was talking about all those years ago when he was advocating for better policies, procedures, and equipment because, in our work, unknown carcinogens can be found anywhere, even in the firehouses.
The fire service has by no means won this battle, but we are clearly better off today because of firefighters like Chief Bennett. When we slow down and take a look back at our history, we can see how the fire service as evolved in the health and safety discipline, and realize it wasn’t always this way.
Thomas N. Warren has more than 40 years of experience in the fire service in both career and volunteer departments. He retired as assistant chief of department of the Providence (RI) Fire Department after 33 years of service. Presently he is a faculty member at Bristol Community College in the Fire Science Technology Program teaching a variety of subjects in the fire science discipline. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in fire science from Providence College, an Associate’s Degree in business administration from the Community College of Rhode Island and a Certificate in Occupational Safety and Health from Roger Williams University.
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