THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

One man, two jobs, and a question

Why did Massport, EMS let public safety employee work almost nonstop?

Richard G. Covino (right) and a colleague assisted a man injured in a car accident in 2007. Covino juggled two full-time public safety jobs for at least 11 years. Richard G. Covino (right) and a colleague assisted a man injured in a car accident in 2007. Covino juggled two full-time public safety jobs for at least 11 years. (Justine Hunt/Globe Staff/File)
By Rachel Kossman and Walter V. Robinson
Globe Correspondents / May 1, 2011

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

Text size +

Last year, on April 27, Lieutenant Richard G. Covino was paid for working an 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. shift with the Massachusetts Port Authority Fire Department. All in all, an ordinary work day.

But starting at 3 p.m. the same day, Covino was also being paid for an eight-hour shift at his other full-time public safety job, as a paramedic for the city of Boston’s Emergency Medical Services Department, where he has worked since 1984.

It is one of several instances in which Covino was paid for working for both agencies at the same time.

For at least 11 years, Covino has juggled two full-time public safety jobs, his longtime position in Boston and successive jobs as a firefighter in Cohasset, Gloucester, and, since 2006, at Massport. In the last four years, Covino has been paid an average of $200,000 a year, including substantial overtime pay.

The overlapping shifts aside, Covino’s nearly 100-hour weeks confront two of Greater Boston’s most elite public safety agencies with an embarrassing question: Why would each allow Covino to hold two high-stress public safety jobs in which alertness and clear-headed judgment might spell the difference between life and death?

On at least five days last year, Covino was credited with starting work in Boston between one and three hours before he had purportedly finished his shift at Massport, according to a Globe examination of his attendance records over a recent 18-month period. On numerous other occasions, there was no more than five minutes, and sometimes less, between the time he officially finished work at one agency and started a tour at the other.

And the records show something else: Covino, who is 50, often worked long stretches with virtually no time off, sometimes 40 hours or more at a stretch, and much of that behind the wheel of a Boston ambulance speeding through the city on life-saving missions. In the last four years, he worked nearly 90 days of overtime a year at the two agencies, for which he earned close to $140,000.

On April 14, after an inquiry from the Globe triggered an internal review, Massport Fire Chief Robert Donahue suspended Covino without pay pending completion of a full investigation. Late on Friday, EMS spokeswoman Jennifer Mehigan said EMS was placing Covino on administrative leave with pay after an initial inquiry also uncovered problems.

Covino declined requests for an interview.

Why Massport and EMS permitted the arrangement is not altogether clear. Donahue, for instance, said he assumed when he hired Covino in 2006 that he was quitting the Boston job, and only found out months later that he had not. Mehigan said EMS officials knew only “anecdotally’’ about the Massport job. EMS has no restrictions on outside employment.

Massport has moved swiftly to make changes. Donahue suspended Covino and sharply curtailed the practice that allows firefighters to swap shifts with one another. This practice was critical to Covino’s juggling act. He routinely asked others to fill in for him so he could leave Massport halfway through a normal day shift to work his standard 3 to 11 p.m. EMS shift. He would repay the hours to them at another time.

Massport last week also changed its policy for new hires in any job: None will be permitted to keep a second full-time position.

EMS, which just launched its inquiry, has not said whether its policies might change.

Neither agency had a policy prohibiting its employees from having another public safety job, or even a requirement that managers be notified about other positions. Indeed, EMS Chief James Hooley, in an interview Thursday, said it is possible that Covino may not be the only one of his 350 EMTs and paramedics working for another public safety agency.

“I don’t know if I could say no to someone having another public safety job,’’ Hooley said.

Samuel R. Tyler, the president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, a business-supported watchdog agency that focuses on city finances and management, said he was astonished to learn that either agency would countenance such an arrangement.

“To allow one person to hold two high-stress public safety jobs is inconceivable. It makes no sense,’’ Tyler said. “It should be common sense — you cannot permit someone to have two jobs, each one stressful, that require quick decisions that affect the safety and lives of the public.’’

Tyler said that such arrangements may “cheat the taxpayers out of the services they should expect,’’ and could leave the city vulnerable to substantial legal damages for any serious misstep by an exhausted paramedic.

Hooley said that Covino has been “one of our better performers,’’ with no hint that his Massport job had affected his work as a paramedic. In 1992, when he had just the one job, Covino was awarded the department’s highest honor, the Medal of Honor, for leading people to safety from a Mattapan house fire before firefighters arrived, Hooley said.

Jay Weaver, an EMS partner and friend of Covino’s, had nothing but praise for his colleague. “Rick is an exceptionally skilled and knowledgeable paramedic, among the finest I’ve ever worked with,’’ Weaver said in an e-mail exchange from Afghanistan, where he is serving a tour as an Army lawyer. “He is an extremely hard worker.’’

Donahue, the Massport chief, would say only that Covino was suspended “for possible violations of department policies and procedures.’’

Friday evening, Mehigan released a statement that said Covino had just been placed on leave “while questions raised by his dual employment with Boston EMS and another agency are being reviewed.’’ It said the Boston Public Health Commission, which oversees EMS, “is committed to ensuring that Boston residents have the utmost confidence in its employees and services.’’

The EMS, with 50 ambulances, responded to emergency calls 110,000 times in 2010. The Massport Fire Department, with 85 firefighters, responds to about 3,000 calls a year, almost all at Logan. Its principal firefighting training involves aircraft fire and rescue operations.

Donahue said that by the time he learned Covino had kept his EMS job, his new hire was fulfilling his work requirements and the agency had no policy barring second jobs. “Obviously, in the future, based on this case, we’d do it differently,’’ Donahue said in an interview. “Safety is our highest priority.’’

At EMS, Hooley said that because of concerns about on-the-job fatigue, EMTs and paramedics can work no more than 18 hours at a stretch. “We would never approve anything more than that,’’ he said.

But serving two masters, Covino regularly violated the spirit of Hooley’s restrictions, according to a Globe review of his work records.

Starting last March 13, for example, Covino was off for less than two hours in a 50-hour stretch. That day, a Saturday, he clocked in to Massport at 5:52 in the morning, then left there at 10:21 p.m. for his Boston job, which started at 11 p.m. and ended at 7 a.m. on Sunday. After an hour’s break, Covino worked another shift at EMS, from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. After a quick commute, he was back on duty at Massport at 4:17 p.m. Sunday for an overnight shift that ended at 8:10 a.m. on Monday.

After that marathon effort, Covino was off for part of Monday, until he went back to EMS for a 3 to 11 p.m. shift.

Such extraordinary work patterns appear again and again during the 18 months of attendance records from the two agencies that the Globe was able to compare. Prior to August 2009, the Massport records do not contain the start and stop times for firefighters’ shifts.

The Massport job allowed for some sleep, typically between midnight and 5 a.m., but only if there were no calls, according to Donahue.

Until the Globe made its public records request in February, neither agency was aware of Covino’s specific work schedule at the other, a scheduled that still allowed for extensive overtime.

Dr. Charles A. Czeisler, director of the Division of Sleep Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and one of the country’s leading authorities on sleep deprivation, said in an interview that physicians and first responders like paramedics and firefighters have a much higher risk of making errors when they go long periods without sleep. Someone who has gone without sleep for 24 hours, he said, has impaired judgment similar to a person who is legally drunk. In such cases, he said, people are more likely to make bad decisions and have short-term memory problems.

Neither EMS nor Massport has evidence of fatigue-related mistakes by Covino.

Covino’s dual positions raise another issue as well: Which hat would Covino don if there were a major terrorist episode at Logan that required both agencies to call in all available personnel? Donahue said that he believes Covino’s first responsibility would be to Massport. Said Hooley: “He understands that Boston EMS is his principal employer. That’s where his primary loyalty lies.’’

This article was prepared for an investigative reporting course at Northeastern University. It was overseen by Walter V. Robinson, who is distinguished professor of journalism and a former editor of the Globe Spotlight Team. Robinson can be reached at w.robinson@neu.edu. Confidential messages can be left at 617-929-3334.

Related