Pubdate: Tue, 30 Jun 2009
Source: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (PA)
Copyright: 2009 PG Publishing Co., Inc.
Author: Rich Lord, Staff Writer


Criminal charges against a Pittsburgh firefighter  spurred a
union-management showdown yesterday, with  Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's
administration calling for more  disciplinary rights and drug testing,
and a labor  leader demanding innocent-until-proven-guilty treatment 
for a seven-year veteran.

Sparking the fight was firefighter Vincent Manzella,  31, who was
charged Thursday with burglary, theft and  calling in false alarms.
The fake alarms were a  diversion, according to a criminal complaint,
so he  could burglarize a Lawrenceville firehouse to support a  heroin

"We have an employee that has been placed in a great  deal of trust,
and he misused that trust," said Public  Safety Director Michael Huss.
"We tend to have within  the Fire Bureau more of this type of illegal
drug use  than we do in our other public safety bureaus.

"It creates a tremendous hazard ... not only to his  co-workers, but
to the public we're trying to protect."

He suspended Mr. Manzella for 30 days and called on a  trial board of
three firefighters to terminate him.

"Everybody's convicted this individual before [seeing]  any legitimate
charges," said Joe King, president of  the International Association
of Fire Fighters Local 1.  He said the trial board will decide the
case "based on  the evidence presented."

A police investigation identified Mr. Manzella as the  person who
called 911 three times in early April to  trick firefighters into
leaving their station unmanned.  Police say he entered and took petty
cash and personal  cash.

Though perhaps less than $100 was stolen, the case  involves "calling
in false alarms, putting firefighters  in danger, utilizing city
resources," Mr. Huss said.

Mr. Manzella worked at the Lawrenceville firehouse a  few years ago,
but was off on workers' compensation  when the calls were made. He
later returned to work at  the Sheraden firehouse, where police found
him June 19.

According to the criminal complaint, he admitted to the  ruse and
"stated that he was really bad into heroin at  the time" after his
work injury led to narcotics  addiction.

In January, the Post-Gazette reported the case of  firefighter John
Connors, who pleaded guilty to cocaine  possession. The city sought to
fire him, but a trial  board found that the city took a shortcut
around labor  contract provisions when it demanded drug tests. Mr. 
Connors is back at work, having won the trial board  decision and an
arbitrator's award.

"Out of all the firefighters we have, there's a very  small percentage
that are using these types of  substances. But it's something we can't
tolerate," said  Mr. Huss. Three firefighters are now subject to "last
 chance" agreements for drug or alcohol violations.

Mr. Huss called for random drug testing of  firefighters, but added
that he needed to bargain that  with the union. Now the city can
demand that a  firefighter undergo a drug test in a variety of 
circumstances, including after a return to work after  more than two
weeks off on compensation.

The union has long wanted "a reasonable testing  program" focused on
firefighters who show signs of a  problem, said Mr. King. But he said
Mr. Huss "just  wants it his way or no way, and that doesn't work."

Mr. King brought up an incident last year in which  police pulled over
firefighter William Clifford in what  appeared to be a case of
mistaken identity. Police  found nothing, but the city had him drug
tested anyway.

Mr. Huss reiterated Mr. Ravenstahl's call, made after  Mr. Connors was
returned to work, for the General  Assembly to rewrite the 70-year-old
state laws that  govern discipline of firefighters in Pittsburgh. 
Instead of firefighters judging their own, he wants  them to have the
right to challenge discipline through  arbitration.

Arbitration "may serve us better than what we currently  have," Mr.
Huss said.

"His chances of [getting] that are slim to none," said  Mr.

Today, when a firefighter is disciplined, the public  safety director
and the accused each choose the names  of 25 firefighters of rank
equal to, or higher than,  the accused. The names are placed in a box,
and seven  are drawn. Each side can strike two, leaving three to 
decide the case.

A proposed new recovery plan under state Act 47 for  distressed
municipalities, up for city council vote today, calls on city
officials to ask the General Assembly to abolish the trial boards.
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MAP posted-by: Richard R Smith Jr