The Fairfield Fire Commission voted unanimously Thursday to suspend all provisional promotions within the fire department for 30 days as the town investigates the practice of advancing firefighters close to retirement.
The vote came after two hours of closed-door deliberations.
"The main reason for this motion is that we're in the process of an investigation," Commission Chair Richard Popilowski said. "We want to see what [the investigation] entails" before the commission decides whether or not to rescind the motion.
First Selectman Michael Tetreau announced at Tuesday's Board of Finance meeting that he is bringing in independent counsel to investigate review after Board of Finance Chair Tom Flynn received an anonymous letter revealing that several firefighters were promoted -- some provisionally, or temporarily -- just days and weeks before retirement.
The promotions boosted the salaries the firefighters' pensions are based on and could cost the town nearly $2 million in contributions to the police and fire pension fund, according to information provided by Selectman Kevin Kiley.
The issue is emphasized by the number of retirements in the past two years (to date, 10, according to Human Resource information Kiley obtained).
Popilowski said the department is facing "unique circumstances...a perfect storm" because there are a lot of individuals with the opportunity to retire before they lose their cost of living adjustment (COLA) on April 1.
Felner added that employees are worried they will lose benefits they have worked toward for decades when the firefighters contract is up for negotiation come June.
"I'm very concerned about this," Fire Chief Richard Felner said. "I'm losing a lot of experience."
To fill vacancies left by assistant chiefs, lieutenants, and training officers who retire, Felner said he follows the contract and offers the job to the senior employee in the rank below. That employee may choose to retire in the new position, regardless of how long he has held it.
The department can also follow a promotional list to fill vacancies, rather than offer to the next senior man, Felner said. The list is based on the results of a promotions test, and once the scores are in the department can use the record for 18 months.
A test was scheduled for late October, but it was postponed due to Superstorm Sandy. It was administered last week.
According to Bob Smith, president of the local chapter of the firefighters union, the department hasn't kept a running list for promotions in years due to the costs to administer the test. During periods when the department does not need to fill vacancies, there is no reason to administer the test, he said -- but then come retirement sprees like the one the department is currently facing.
"It's a catch-22 we're in," Smith said.