The union representing the Folsom Fire Department is attempting to have the fire chief terminated, citing alleged incompetence, inappropriate behavior and mismanagement. Folsom city officials, however, said they believe the union’s complaints are motivated by a desire to force the city to merge with the huge Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District.
Union President Brian Rice said Friday that the Folsom Fire Department’s troubles transcend normal labor-management issues.
“This has nothing to do with wages or contracts,” Rice said. “This is solely about the lack of leadership.”
Fire Chief Eric Dutton, who is planning to retire in November after heading the department for nine years, accused the union of taking issues out of context to smear him in an attempted power grab.
“My ability to run this organization should speak for itself,” Dutton said, noting he’s held leadership positions in the Fire Department for most of his career. His view is that “the root of the whole thing” is, in fact, the desire of the larger Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District to merge with Folsom.
Folsom firefighters are represented by Local 522, and in May, voted in favor of a new contract.
However, firefighters have approached the union for several years about management concerns, Rice said, and the union has always sent them back to negotiate.
“Now, we’re not going to work this out,” Rice said. At the heart of some of the union’s complaints are “joke” e-mails, one sent by the fire chief and the other by the deputy fire chief, which crossed the line of civility, Rice added.
The e-mails became public in February and March. Dutton sent one to fire administrators that pokes fun at the mullet hairstyle — close-cropped at the top and sides but long in the back. It then goes on to insult midgets, lesbians, Latinos and other groups over their hairstyle choices.
Dutton admits that the e-mail was inappropriate and that he should not have sent it. A letter from Folsom’s personnel manager states that the e-mail was reviewed and that “corrective action has been taken to ensure no recurrence.”
Dutton said he has not viewed the other e-mail, which described an imaginary conversation between fictional characters Saddam Hussein, Baghdad Bob, General KFC and Chemical Ali.
The characters, Rice said, mimic Folsom Fire Department personnel and mock the Iraq war effort.
“That kind of crap has no business in our profession,” Rice said. “It’s just flat wrong.”
Dutton said the complaints may be coming from a small contingent of disgruntled employees who are not representative of the majority of firefighters.
Dutton said he has been approached by the Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District about a possible merger, but that he has not taken a stance.
He said his responsibility is to the city.
Michele McCormick, a consultant with the city, admits that the union’s e-mail complaints “do not represent the finest hour. But all of them are out of context.”
“(The union) would like to consolidate our department under Sacramento Metro Fire,” McCormick said. “In Folsom, the way this has manifested itself is an attempt to oust the fire chief.”
Patrick Ellis, spokesman for the larger fire district, said his agency is not involved in any “power grab by the union.”
“We feel it would be advantageous to the community to have one regional fire service,” Ellis said.
“However, that is a decision that lies with the elected officials and citizens of Folsom. We have received no direction from our body to seek such a merger.”
The union claims that the Folsom department is “starving for leadership” and that services are not keeping pace with the city’s rapid growth, Rice said.
The union alleges that turnover is high and morale is low. In a list of complaints, the union claimed that city leaders wasted money on ineffective studies, emergency response times are too high, and unwise decisions have been made regarding equipment purchases.
The alleged lack of leadership is manifested in the Folsom Fire Department’s water rescue program, the union said.
The union claims that the city in 2003 missed an opportunity to purchase a rescue boat, which Rice called “a travesty” that hindered effective water rescues.
Dutton responded that, “With limited funds, everything cannot be purchased that we’d like to have.”
This year, however, the city did receive a $70,000 grant to buy a rescue boat that will be in use by September.
Rice cited the delay in acquiring the boat as an example of a lack of leadership in the Folsom Fire Department. The agency has not moved with the times, he said.
“They’re doing nothing to increase the service as the community grows,” Rice said.
At the current full-staffing level, the Folsom Fire Department has 76 workers, with 66 emergency responders, six administrators, two emergency medical service personnel and two fire-prevention specialists. Staffing has increased by one or two positions every year since 2002-2003, city officials said.
In the prior year, 2001-2002, the Fire Department brought in 12 new emergency responders and one new administrator, officials said.
By comparison, the Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District is one of the largest fire departments in California. It serves approximately 600,000 people in parts of Sacramento County, Placer County and the city of Citrus Heights.