PALM BEACH, FL – Palm Beach Fire-Rescue personnel are now allowed to shop for groceries once during a 24-hour shift following a policy change that puts them back in step with other area fire departments.
It’s a common practice among firefighters nationwide. Palm Beach was no different until April 22, 2010. That’s when the grocery-shopping privilege was taken away during a time of upheaval in the fire and police departments over proposed pension cuts.
Then-Fire Chief Bill Amador implemented the “no grocery shopping while on duty’’ policy after consulting with Town Manager Peter Elwell. Elwell said that was just one of several issues that needed to be addressed “in the midst of dealing with disciplinary actions and misconduct” during that time.
Amador was subsequently fired for his involvement with a website that was critical of the pension cuts.
“It was a difficult period of time,” Elwell said Friday. “There was a lot of disruption in the department, and there were a lot of factors that needed to be addressed to get back on course. One of them was that they (fire-rescue personnel) were prohibited from going to the grocery store while on duty.”
Public Safety Director Kirk Blouin implemented the new policy, which took effect April 14.
The new policy had nothing to do with the local firefighters’ union asking for this change during recent negotiations, he said. Blouin said talks about the issue had been ongoing — with Deputy Fire Chief Darrel Donatto and Elwell — long before the union brought it up.
“Sometimes, changes take awhile,” Blouin said. “Because they do a lot of shift swaps, they don’t always know who they will be working with on shifts, and it’s a little cumbersome to coordinate a meal or grocery list because of that. It’s part of firehouse tradition to sit down and eat dinner together. They work as a team and, most times, sit down and eat a meal together as a family. We examined whether it impacts response times, and we don’t believe it will do that.”
The specifics of the policy are: Fire-rescue personnel are permitted to shop at local grocery stores on the island only from 9 to 11 a.m. Any exception must be approved by the battalion chief.
One unit will shop for each station, and only one unit may shop at a time. No more than two personnel will be inside the store, and the driver will remain in the vehicle to monitor the radio and to ensure immediate response should a call come in. An officer must be present while shopping.
The policy may be modified or rescinded at any time.
Tara Cardosa, spokeswoman for the International Association of Firefighters, Local 2928, said Palm Beach was the only department in the area, as far as the union knows, that didn’t allow firefighters to shop for groceries on their shifts.
“Our firefighter/paramedics were pleasantly surprised to see the town has changed its opinion regarding firefighters shopping for groceries while on shift and in zone, ready to respond,” Cardosa said in a statement. “Firefighters across the country have long cherished the tradition of cooking and eating a family meal together for dinner, and that’s why it’s typical for them to want to shop together.
“The profession of firefighting is much like a real family, where it’s important for the crew to do things together to foster camaraderie, build trust and decompress together because, at a second’s notice, their lives could be in each other’s hands.”
With a change in leadership and many new hires, Elwell said, there’s a more “professional and positive team atmosphere” at all levels.
“Kirk (Blouin) and Darrel (Donatto) thought this would be appropriate and helpful to them in managing the department, and would be appreciated by the firefighters,” Elwell said. “They felt confident they could implement this with zero impact on service to the community. I accepted that and agree with the procedure they implemented.”