A point by point response Wedneday from Topeka Fire Chief Howard Giles in first public comments since a "no confidence" vote by Topeka's firefighters union.
Giles says he believes the bottom line to firefighters' complaints is "the pain of change." Giles admits he got off on the wrong foot when, shortly after hired from Georgia, he replaced retiring managers through a new policy that looked not just at seniority, but also qualifications. It's a decision he says he does not regret.
"I feel a professional fire department should be run by the most qualified, not the next in line," he said. "I stand by that today."
Giles says he takes issue with complaints about his communication skills. He says he tried to hold town hall meetings for employees, but union leadership discouraged it.
As for complaints about replacing aging equipment and botching bids for FEMA reimbursement following the May floods, so that cash for replacing helmets had to go toward flood-damaged items instead, Giles says it's not true. He says he filled out the applications for reimbursement from FEMA, but was realistic in conversations with city manager Norton Bonaparte that it was possible the department could receive no payments. Giles says the primary concern was the safety of firefighters in getting the best gear possible.
Since then, Giles says he learned last week the city will get $55,000 from FEMA. He says he received authorization Tuesday to use that money to buy new helmets. However, he says, rather than continuing a program that replaces helmets on a rolling basis based on rank, he'll implement a new procedure that follows a new recommendation from a national firefighting association, that says helmets should be replaced once they reach ten years of age. Giles say the oldest helmets will be replaced first.
Giles says he felt compelled to speak out in light of public comments he says cross the line - he says insinuations that he's to blame for the recent death of fire captain Tony Cox. Giles says such comments show a "total lack of respect for Tony's family."
Topeka Local 83 Union President, Capt. Kent Dederick, says Giles' believe that firefighters complaints stem from him being an outsider are an excuse.
"It doesn't matter where somebody's from," Dederick said. "It's the philosophies. It's wanting to work together."
Giles says he's recommitted himself to opening the lines of communication. He says he expects to be asking more questions of folks, finding out what they'd like to see done.
But for firefighters, it may be too little, too late.
"We're done," Dederick said. "We've had enough of this."
Dederick is set to meet with Bonaparte Friday morning about firefighters' concerns.
Topeka Fire Chief Howard Giles' News Conference Text Wednesday, Sept. 19:
“Thank you all for being here today on such a short notice.
“As all of you know, Fire Union Local 83 held a no confidence vote on me late last week. Since then, there has been a barrage of attacks in the media on my administration by various members of the union leadership and different fire personnel. A statement released by the union had a dozen or so general allegations – about my leadership ability, my lack of concern for firefighters, my inability to communicate, and my decisions on how funds should be spent, to name a few.
“The fire union’s undated statement, first appearing last Thursday night, listed very few specific examples of what they were referring to. In fact, the only statement that had any specifics was in regards to how department – taxpayer – dollars are spent. That is fair. I can and will address these issues one by one.
“Then last night, union president Kent Dederick visited the Topeka City Council, carrying another document with some additional allegations, a document that was given to me at 10 a.m. this morning by a fellow City staff member. New allegations include poor treatment of firefighters, twice threatening an employee with termination – both of which are false – and disciplining two employees for matters surrounding the flooding event of May 7 – which is true. And again, questions were raised about the expenditure of department funds.
“With the vote of no confidence, the allegations lodged late Thursday of last week and this past Tuesday night, and the constant chatter on talk radio, I have asked myself: “What is this really all about?” The answer is simple. It is about the pain of change.
“As most of you know, I am not from around here. I took over in December of 2004, moving me and my family here from Georgia. The Mayor at the time, Mayor James McClinton, chose me, I believe, because I would bring new eyes to a department steeped in tradition, that I – with my experience in firefighting, management, and education – would exact change – albeit slowly – that I would not be tethered by loyalty to specific firefighters, but that I was fiercely committed to providing the best fire service possible.
“When I got here, I was faced with a decision to replace some retiring upper-level managers. I had a choice to make – do I give the job to the next person in line, even if they had not been determined to be the most qualified for the position, or do I include other factors in choosing key leaders in the Topeka Fire Department. I chose the latter, creating a panel of outside fire department leaders from surrounding communities to help narrow the field of candidates. I made my selections.
“That move immediately caused resistance among the fire union leadership. Later in the year and after other promotions, a lawsuit was filed, but later dismissed. The lawsuit challenged my right to promote based on merit rather than seniority. I feel a professional fire department should be run by the most qualified, not the next in line. I stand by that today.
“To improve communications, it was suggested to me to conduct more meetings with the troops. After meeting with groups of on duty employees, I visited some fire stations and implemented a Town Hall Meeting program. Employees were invited to attend these evening meetings in an off duty/voluntary status. The purpose of these meetings was to provide employees with the opportunity to visit directly with the fire chief. The first meetings were well attended with employees asking for more. Union leadership, however, instructed their members to not attend these meetings and explained to me that it was the responsibility of the executive board to communicate with membership.
“Another example is during promotions, when we posted job notices for battalion chief positions, union leadership issued their own eligibility list and strongly encouraged people not on that list to not pursue these opportunities.
“We agree. There are communication issues. However, we – administration – have strived hard to communicate with the rank and file firefighter only to be blocked and filtered by the union leadership.
“I am announcing today that I am recommitting myself to open communications with the rank and file firefighters. Starting this week, I will be visiting fire stations throughout my department on a more frequent, informal basis to continue building relationships with our firefighters. I will also be relying heavily on my new Deputy Chief Rick Pardee and others to help me bridge this communication gap.
“Concerning other issues, I will now address those pertaining to my fiscal decision making:
(Chief then addressed in detail the following)
Overtime for Chiefs
“I have also provided you with more detail concerning these topics and will answer questions. But before I finish the formal presentation, I would like the firefighters and the Citizens of Topeka to know that the Topeka Fire Department will continue to do what we do best – caring for the citizens of our community through first response and fire suppression. I am very proud of our firefighters and their abilities and look forward to mending fences strained by the changes they have experienced. I am committed to doing all I can to reach across to those who disagree with my management and expect the same respect in return.”