I’m sure we have all seen the headlines at some time. The city names have been left out but you might find one to put your city’s name in. Here are just a few;
- fire department and union spar over station closures
- fire chief states weekend sick use is ‘disturbing, costly’
- Judge sides with firefighters over disability benefits
- union states mechanical fire truck issues pose safety threat
- fire union blames poor morale on chief
- fire chief defends performance from union
- fire chief doesn’t value safety, should be fired
- chief dismisses 6 cadets for drinking on-duty
- IAFF votes to censure city’s fire chief
- union censures chief a second time
- chief calls firefighter union’s censure ‘misinformed’
Anything sound familiar?
How about these;
- Fire chief plays volleyball with union members and helps them win gold medal in firefighter Olympics
- At the suggestion of the union president, the fire chief has formed 3 union represented committees to assist in rules, policies and safety changes.
- fire chief sides with union on removing discipline on firefighter
Okay. The last few weren’t actually headlines but I know they happened. And they probably happen in some of the departments covered in the first set. But you don’t usually read about the good things that happen. So what kind of relationship works best between a Fire Chief and the Firefighters Union?
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Ideally a good working relationship between the two parties helps to maintain morale, keep discipline down, creates a more open working atmosphere, and gets the firefighters involved with the department. Did the last one raise a question with you? Firefighters more involved with the department? I know the quick answer from some; “That’s where we work, of course we are involved”. Okay I get that. When is the last time a division chief asked for your opinion on a policy or rule? When is the last time you served on a committee to review the safety manual to update it? When is the last time your department sponsored a block party or station open house so you could be more involved with the community?
I am a firm believer in getting firefighters involved with the department in a variety of ways. One sure way to build and keep morale is to get the personnel involved in running the department. Certainly I am not proposing that the chief ask them for opinions everytime a decision is to be made. But if you as a chief are going to make a decision involving the personnel, if you have the time, why not ask for their input? And of course the Union representative should not feel shy in asking the fire chief for help when they need it. It is not going to be possible for each side to always help out the other. But it would be nice to work in an atmosphere where it is ok to ask.
Even in the best working relationship there will be times when disagreements rise to the level of some of the headlines. If there is a really good working relationship where both sides are involved it seems to follow that a union would not have to take a vote of no confidence. If the morale is high because the firefighters feel they are an active part of the department, chances are they are not wanting to hurt that kind of work environment.
The last piece of the puzzle is the city administration. If they do not want to get along with the union it can make life difficult for the chief who wants to get the firefighters involved and wants them to have good morale. Unless the chief feels the same as the city. I feel sorry for those departments who have that kind of working relationship.
I am not offering any magical solutions. If I am asked what kind of relationship the fire chief should have with the union, I will always say a good working one where both parties are involved with each other. If your department morale is low remember that the current chief won’t be there forever, nor the current mayor, council, manager, or union president. Time changes all things. And this will change too, eventually.
Remember – Everyone goes home.
William Jolley has 37 years of experience in the fire service with 20 of those years in a management position. William was the Fire Chief of Haines City, Florida, a city of Approximately 20,000. Prior to that William was the Assistant Chief of Saint Petersburg, Florida, where he worked for 35 years.