Flag Flap for Firefighters, Chief

Topeka Fire Chief Howard Giles
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A flag provides the latest chapter in a dispute between the Topeka firefighters union and chief Howard Giles.

Last fall, the union had a "no confidence" vote in Giles, and asked the city to remove him. Firefighters have been speaking at each council meeting since then, airing complaints over Giles management.

Recently, firefighters at one station flew a "Local 83" banner along with the American flag. Monday, Giles sent an email to fire stations saying the city is responsible for the messages displayed at public facilities, so he asked the union flag be removed, and a formal request made for permission to fly it.

Union president Kent Dederick says they'll submit a request, but since Giles admits there's no existing policies regarding flags, they had no grounds to request it be taken down. Dederick also points to the Police Department flying the flag of its union, the Fraternal Order of Police. City spokesperson Dave Bevens says that is allowed because FOP members received permission from former Chief Gerald Beavers to display their union flag at the Law Enforcement Center.

Giles Message for Firefighters:
Good Afternoon:

I am writing this to let you know of an issue that arose today. This is an issue that could potentially be portrayed as management against union, and I want you to know that is not the case.

For decades, it has been the practice of the City of Topeka Fire Department to fly the flag of the United States of America on the flag poles at City fire stations. There is no City policy that establishes or requires this, nor is there a departmental policy to this effect. Today it came to my attention that a second flag was being flown on a fire station flag pole under the United States flag. This flag was a flag in representation of our Local.

After reviewing the City’s regulations and our own policies, I spoke with the Captains at this fire station and explained that I did not want to make a big issue out of this. We had a good conversation and I also explained that the City is responsible for whatever is flown on our flag poles, or messages displayed at public facilities. By granting approval for flags, banners, messages to be displayed/flown, the City exercises its speech, or City speech. By flying something that has not been approved to be flown, we invite other groups to demand that their messages/banners/flags be displayed as well. This is not a position in which the City can be placed, and it is my responsibility to address this when issues arise at department facilities.

Lacking an existing policy on flags to be flown on our flag poles, Deputy Chief Pardee and I directed the Captains to remove the Local flag from the pole and ensure their relief tomorrow are advised of today’s conversation. Chief Pardee will be addressing the other shifts at this station tomorrow to convey the same message.

The Captains were advised that the proper course of action would be for an interested party to prepare a written request to fly a specified flag on the station’s flag pole along with an explanation as to why this is being requested and how it is considered to be City business, and send this through their chain of command. The chief officers along the way are expected to provide their comments and recommendations. Chief Pardee and I will review the request, determine whether this is something beneficial to the City, and make an appropriate decision.

I look forward to seeing the request and gaining an appreciation for the benefit to be received by the department or City. In closing, I want to clarify: 1) The issue at hand is that a flag not normally flown on a City flag pole was flown without prior authorization; 2) I invite a written request as described above; and 3) This e-mail constitutes a formal directive that no unauthorized flags or banners, etc. be flown on City flag poles or structures. To be clear, the ranking officer(s) on duty at fire stations will be held accountable for any violations of this directive.

Howard Giles
Fire Chief
City of Topeka