Peter Faerber Jr. is stepping down as Middletown’s fire chief in the midst of a battle between the town and the local fire union over staffing levels.
Faerber, who was appointed chief in 2017 and first joined the department in 1996, submitted his resignation letter to Town Administrator Shawn Brown with an effective date of Feb. 14.
Town officials said that the search is on for a permanent replacement, although no names were offered as of press time. A Jan. 14 email from Brown indicated the process will be similar to the one used to select current police chief, William Kewer.
“We will begin our search for a new fire chief immediately. I have submitted a request to the Town Council to engage Municipal Resources Inc. to assist,” Brown wrote. “I will be forwarding a recommendation to appoint an interim fire chief at the upcoming Town Council meeting.”
Faerber came up through the ranks and held many positions, including a stint as treasurer for the Middletown Firefighters Local 1933. “[He] was always committed to the fire service and keeping the town safe,” Brown said.
A phone call to Faerber seeking comment was not returned.
Faerber found himself in the middle of the current controversy over the department’s reliance on mutual aid from their Aquidneck Island neighbors, mostly coming from Newport and Portsmouth, that they say is filling a hole in service that would be better plugged by an increase in staffing. The union maintains that a rise in call volume, coupled with the growing demand from seniors and tourists, has exacerbated the problem.
Town officials have countered that staffing levels have remained consistent even with a slight drop in Middletown’s population. The two sides have been in contract arbitration since March.
Asked if Faerber’s resignation had any connection to the current labor contract impasse, Town Council President Robert Sylvia said that any speculation was “pointless.”
“I knew nothing before that [notification] nor was there any conversation, to my knowledge, about his resignation,” he said.
Joseph Andriole, president of the Rhode Island Association of Firefighters, criticized Faerber after the Jan. 6 council meeting, releasing a statement blasting the fire chief for “remaining silent while the town manager and the Town Council threw the entire fire department under the bus.”
Andriole was referencing Brown’s characterization of a house fire on Woolsey Avenue, which resulted in three people being transported to hospitals, as one in which the fire department’s response may have been counter to proper procedure.
Middletown Firefighters Local 1933 president John Jordan, during a Jan. 15 phone call, said that he understood some union members’ frustration with Faerber failing to step into the public fray. However, he said Faerber was put in an unenviable situation as head of a municipal department who must answer directly to the town.
“He’s been working with a hostile council that kind of tied his hands and was refusing to see the problem of staffing,” he said, although he conceded that Faerber “could have voiced more [opposition].”
The leadership switch will have implications for the negotiations, said Jordan, as the new fire chief will be stepping into a dispute where both sides appear to have dug in their heels.
“[Faerber is] a great guy, but he’s not really a combative person,” he said. “In this fire department you kind of have to be that way. He’s at the whim of the town trying to skate a fine line running the department … which I don’t think he was able to run the way he would have liked.
“He definitely was caught between a rock and a hard place. This administration has made it extremely difficult for him to do his job properly.”
As for in-house prospects that may be ready to take over, Jordan said that the department is relatively young, and given the circumstances, the union won’t hold much sway in the town’s eventual decision.
“We hope that they choose somebody who’s looking out for the safety of the town and not just their wallets,” he said.