Racist graffiti, threats, profanity and a noose hanging in a locker; claims of harassment and a culture of accepted sexism, evidenced in part by a topless female firefighter posing in panties on a widely distributed calendar. For the past year, the Houston Fire Department has been beset by inner turmoil, with critics pointing to problems within the management structure, one they say has become lax in disciplining workplace offenders and has let power shift from downtown to the fire stations.
The result, the critics say, creates an environment in which employees believe bad behavior will not be noticed on Dart Street, where the downtown command staff is headquartered.
But as the HFD tries to regroup, how it will be fixed rests with a new mayor -- who will appoint a new top commander -- and the interim chief, both of whom insist that discrimination will not be tolerated and all firefighters will be held accountable for their workplace actions.
"We've got work to do," Fire Chief Rick Flanagan told the Houston Chronicle in his first extensive interview since being named acting chief by Mayor Annise Parker on Jan. 19. Flanagan stepped in after Phil Boriskie announced he was resigning as chief to return to the fire station. "Apparently, there are some deficiencies we need to address," Flanagan said.
Since he took over nearly two weeks ago, managers and firefighters have been ordered to undergo more mandatory classroom training about workplace behavior, and several managers at Station 54, recently one of the most troubled, were transferred or reassigned.
During the interview, Flanagan steered away from any questions that would require him to assess the department's history, or to say whether current woes stem from a troubled internal culture created over time.
"I think we're a great department, a dynamic department to respond and provide care to our citizens," he said. "We've shown that time and time again."
Promoting from within
Admittedly, the jobs of Houston firefighters are demanding: On shift for 24 hours at a time, they save lives and fight fires together; they live together, eat together and cook together.
And in the most harrowing of circumstances -- fraught with flames, mangled cars, chemical accidents and human carnage -- they also sometimes save each other. They boast that they rank first in citizen surveys of city services, and the citizens they rescue have one of the nation's highest cardiac arrest survival rates.
But for years, HFD's top commanders have all risen through the ranks. With the exception of one four-month blip in its 110-year history, no outsider has held the fire chief's job at HFD, and all have been white men.
That exception, former Seattle Fire Chief Robert L. Swartout, resigned and left Houston quickly in 1985 when he realized he had walked into a blistering political stalemate between then-Mayor Kathy Whitmire and the HFD, aided by the powerful Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association.
Swartout is credited with helping craft programs at the Seattle Fire Department to ensure women would succeed. His first successful recruit hired in 1975, Bonnie Beers, retired in 2008 as a Seattle battalion chief.
"Success begets success," said Swartout, speaking from his Tacoma, Wash., home. "To me, the fire service should look as much like the city as you can get it."
HFD's union is as powerful as it's ever been.
Every employee, from chief to rookie, is represented by one union, even though supervisors and their employees have competing needs.
The union question
Many other large cities either disqualify their command staff from voting on a contract or have separate unions for top managers. The union's strength often fuels questions about whether the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association runs the department, and whether any chief can effectively lead.
"My membership in the union neither prevents the union from challenging my decisions on personnel or other management decisions, nor ... determine how I rule on issues," Flanagan said.
Union president Jeff Caynon also disputes the idea that the union runs the department.
"There is nothing to support the hypothetical notion that union membership for management gives the union control of the administration of the Fire Department," Caynon insisted.
Late last year, a $190,000 consultant's report noted several problems. The report was prompted, in part, by complaints of racist and sexist graffiti, as well as threats, scrawled on the lockers and walls of Station 54's dormitory for women firefighters last summer
The HFD's handling of the women's complaints likely hastened Boriskie's stepping down as chief and the FBI's stepping in to review the city's evidence into the summer graffiti incident.
Fewer women recruited
The consultant's report documented a fuzzy grievance system, and while most of 22 women firefighters interviewed reported positive treatment, those who experienced discrimination said some captains "have made it difficult for women."
Recruitment of women at HFD has plummeted dramatically over the past decade, with only seven new female trainees added to the firefighting force in the past five years, according to city payroll records.
If past recruitment numbers hold, the number of women in the ranks could decrease further five years from now, when 65 of today's 103 female firefighters become eligible for retirement.
The consultant's report also noted that some station captains seemingly pick and choose who transfers to their fire stations, without the aid of higher-ranking command staff.
"Giving people unfettered discretion to make personnel decisions is always a bad idea," said Joe Ahmad, attorney for 10 women firefighters, including Jane Draycott and Paula Keyes, the two who were the targets of the graffiti found last year at Station 54. "Allowing captains to veto personnel decisions, if it's not checked with any rules or guidelines, that leaves ample room for discrimination," said Ahmad.
A bulletin has since been sent to stations reminding the 3,900-strong force that personnel decisions need approval from downtown.
"Using discipline sends a strong message that the ways of doing things in the past, especially when they were discriminatory, retaliatory or otherwise illegal, will not be tolerated," Ahmad said.
The latest incident fueling criticism is an HFD shift calendar featuring a picture of a female Houston firefighter posing topless next to a firetruck.
Flanagan acknowledged that the calendar, distributed as part of a fundraiser, was not appropriate workplace behavior.
"Absolutely it is not," he said.
Even with the problems noted by the consultant group, the union's president and several firefighters dispute the harshest criticism of the department.
"We do realize that HFD has not had stellar successes for a variety of reasons in recruiting qualified female firefighters," HFD firefighter Kim Phillips said. "Unfortunately, there are no quick fixes."
Written by Houston Chronicle
Courtesy of YellowBrix - YellowBrix