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Misbehavior, leadership issues cloud Columbia Fire Department

Columbia Fire Station 9 on Devine Street. on Nov. 17, 2016.
Columbia Fire Station 9 on Devine Street. on Nov. 17, 2016. tglantz@thestate.com

Firefighters in a firetruck pick up a drunken, off-duty fellow fireman who was walking from Columbia’s St. Pat’s Festival. They ferry him to a nearby fire station that has a frat house reputation, where he causes trouble.

A fire captain gooses a young firefighter and dismisses it as typical horseplay. But the firefighter’s complaint costs the city nearly $50,000 to settle.

Firemen fire off threatening and unprofessional remarks on Facebook about Black Lives Matter protesters. Three, including a captain, are fired.

Those incidents and others troubled Columbia city manager Teresa Wilson. Wilson hired consultants to do a deep dive into what was going on in the Columbia Fire Department.

The result was an explosive survey of firefighters, obtained by The State newspaper through the state’s open-records law. The survey surfaced complaints about the lack of professionalism, concerns over poor pay, a widespread distrust of leaders and a host of other issues.

 

As part of an internal examination of the city’s largest department begun early this year:

▪ The Fire Department’s second-in-command has been transferred to another city department and his administrative position eliminated.

▪ The department’s command staff has a new member, hired from a Lowcountry fire department.

▪ Fire Chief Aubrey Jenkins is instituting procedures to regain the trust of his department’s rank and file.

▪ And firefighters have received some of the pay increases they say are long overdue.

Overall, the survey’s findings reflect some harsh opinions among firefighters. But the survey also found core support for the department.

Still, Wilson took the extraordinary step of meeting face to face in mid-October with about two-thirds of the department’s 475 firefighters.

“I wanted to be sure there wasn’t any culture of bad behavior,” Wilson said in an interview with The State. What she determined from those meetings, Wilson said, is that the bad behaviors were “isolated incidents.”

But what she also learned,Wilson said, was so concerning that she had a “heart-to-heart” conversation with Jenkins and his immediate supervisor Allison Baker, Columbia’s senior assistant city manager who oversees the department.

 

Capt. Jacob Eller is president of the Columbia Firefighters Association, an advocacy group that he said includes about a quarter of the department’s personnel. He said working conditions have gotten better recently.

“It definitely slowed down the bleeding,” Eller said of a pay raise, bonuses that range from $50 to $100 per paycheck, and other improvements. “But I don’t think it’s enough to stop the bleeding.”

What firefighters said

It’s commonplace for employees to grouse about their bosses.

But the firefighters surveyed – 76 percent of the workforce – took it much further than that. And that’s a concern when residents depend on firefighters to save their property and their lives.

The survey turned up stinging criticism of the department’s top supervisors as well as a range of beefs about pay, advancement, firefighter behavior, uneven discipline and deep divisions in attitudes between new and veteran firefighters.

“Lots of houses are thinking of taking a vote of no confidence about our leadership,” one firefighter told the Aiken-based management and training consulting firm of Stewart and Associates Inc.

Among the things that other firefighters told the consultants:

“We need fresh blood at the top (all command staff). Bring someone in from the outside,” said another.

“The chief is a figurehead,” said another.

“Chief needs a deputy chief and assistant chief that has his back and not a knife in it.”

The identities of the firefighters, including department leaders, were redacted from copies of the consultants’ findings that were released by City Hall to the newspaper.

Other remarks contained in 135 pages released from the report include:

▪  Several firefighters referred to Station 9 on Devine Street, east of Five Points, as “a frat house.”

▪  Jenkins “manages with his heart – needs to be tougher.”

▪  A lack of consistently applied rules has created a sense of unfairness. “It’s common knowledge that to work the system you use LOCO – Last One in the Chief’s Office,” meaning supervisors could go into Jenkins’ office to get a decision they disliked overturned.

▪  Battalion chiefs, shift supervisors and captains aren’t heard or get sandwiched between conflicting or unclear instructions from above. “We have lost a lot of good leaders because they got tired of not being heard.”

▪ A lack of rank-and-file access to the chief.

When chief Jenkins was read excerpts by a reporter, he said, “It did shock me.

“I wish that I knew,” he said, asked about supervisors who might have impeded access to him. “I don’t make excuses. I’m the chief. I should have known.”

Bird’s eye view

Overall, the department is staffed by people who are professional and want the capital city’s firefighting force restored, consulting firm owner Liz Stewart wrote to Wilson.

“These officers appear to genuinely care about the department and its future,” Stewart wrote in the April 15 report’s key findings. “I believe they have the right attitude and desire to improve the situation, but need support and direction.

“(T)he most consistently noted emotion was frustration,” Stewart wrote. “The most significant finding (and the greatest concern) is the lack of trust in the department leadership. The reason this is so troubling is that trust is one of the easiest things to lose and one of the most difficult to rebuild.”

Stewart’s observation is supported by remarks such as, “(I) work for 24 hours and get paid little and almost live paycheck to paycheck, but it is the best job there ever could be. I love what I do and (am) happy to be a fireman, job can be stressful at times especially not knowing if you get to go home the next day alive.”

The city manager said her in-person meetings with firefighters support the finding that the foundation of the department is solid.

Wilson said she did not hear as much grumbling as the consultants did about Jenkins and his command staff. Still, her worries were sufficient to get her to investigate directly, an unusual step in Columbia.

Wilson’s predecessor, Steve Gantt, a city administrator for a dozen years and city manager for eight of those, said he never saw problems severe enough to go to the extent she did.

“I applaud her if she thinks there is something intrinsically wrong (enough) that she goes down there to meet with them,” Gantt said.

He said it was common for firefighters to complain about salaries, equipment and other work conditions, including taking shots at the command staff. “There’s a cycle there that after four, five, six years of leadership, the rank and file decides it’s time for a change.”

But the voices of firefighters in the survey show considerable turmoil on a range of leadership issues:

▪ “No. 2 is a dictator,” an apparent reference to then-deputy chief Harry Tinsley, who, according to comments in the survey, was a lightning rod for controversy.

▪ “Not sure what happened to him when he got promoted ...,” another firefighter said of Tinsley. “Now he can be very vindictive if you don’t agree with him.”

 

Tinsley, who was a Columbia firefighter for 29 years and deputy chief for five, said he was surprised by some of his former colleagues’ remarks. “I was taken aback ... globally (department wide) and me, specifically.”

The department underwent many changes, including in its command staff, in training, in policies – all while trying to manage a high turnover rate, he said. “I consider myself a fair person. There were some challenges, and you had to take a hard line, and that makes some people frustrated,” Tinsley said.

In September, Tinsley was moved from the fire department and named the city’s director of emergency management.

Wilson, Baker, Jenkins and Tinsley say his move to emergency management was not a response to unease in the fire department. The city had been looking to hire an emergency management director since the October 2015 flood, they said. The position was created this summer, Columbia personnel director Pam Benjamin said.

▪  The command staff is at odds. “(O)ne thing you can say about command staff is that they are not harmonious. You can hear them slamming doors and yelling at each other every day.” Another said, “At headquarters, chiefs walk by each other and don’t speak for weeks at a time.”

▪  An assistant chief was called “toxic.” Another firefighter said, “Accountability at all levels is lacking.”

▪  Not enough pay, no salary structure, and five canceled holidays should be reinstated. “We used to be the best department in the state and people were eager to get on here. Now we are the training ground for them and then they go somewhere else and get more money.”

▪  No merit increases and uncertain retirement. “You get the same pay for 110 percent or 30 percent performance.”

▪  “Especially bad things said on Facebook.”

Eller, the fire association president, said firefighters feel better since pay increases and specialized training bonuses were phased in starting a year ago. But not getting back five paid holidays that were eliminated seven years ago during the city’s budget crisis remains a big issue.

Creating pay grades that reward those who stay and continue their professional training will have a longer-term effect, Eller said. When he arrived at the department nine years ago, “Guys were willing to do more (off duty) ... for free because they felt that they were taken care of.

“Guys (today) are seeing it (firefighting) more and more just as a job.

“Do we have some big issues and some bigger obstacles that we’re trying to get a hold of?” Eller said, “Yes.”

Changes now and still to come

Firehouse grumbling is a matter of course, Jenkins said. He has heard it for the more than two decades he’s worked at the Columbia Fire Department. “I’ve seen this throughout my whole career no matter who is in the corner office.

“CFD is not in disarray,” the chief said. “We are a strong department. Public safety is our first priority, which has been demonstrated by the Class 1 ISO rating the city of Columbia just received. Less than 1 percent of the fire departments across the country have a Class 1.”

Insurance Service Office ratings can mean lower property insurance premiums, as they measure, among other standards, how quickly trucks get to fires.

But after the consultants reviewed their findings and the city manager heard the results, Wilson said she met with Jenkins and his boss, Baker.

“I wouldn’t say it was fix it or you’re gone,” Jenkins said of the directives from Wilson. “I would characterized it as she was very concerned. But she gave me the opportunity to fix it.”

Some of the fixes underway or planned are:

▪  An outsider, Randy Wells, formerly with the Burton Fire Department on Port Royal Island in Beaufort County, became assistant chief of operations. Wells is one of four assistant chiefs.

▪  An advisory team composed of rank-and-file firefighters has been organized to serve as a link to the chief’s office and to suggest solutions to problems. The team also is drafting standard operating guidelines.

▪  Jenkins has begun sending videotaped messages to all locations so they hear from him about what’s changing, and a quarterly newsletter is being planned.

“I do take this as a reality check,” the chief said of the survey findings. “And I do think that it’s an opportunity ... to move in a more positive direction.”

City manager’s plans

Wilson said that what galvanized her attention were examples of poor judgment and questionable conduct by some.

The straw that led her to hire consultants happened in January. Fire Capt. Jeffery Rish goosed a firefighter from behind at a station. The offended firefighter, who was new to the department, told Rish he “doesn’t play those kind of games,” according to a Columbia Police Department investigation of the incident.

Rish’s response was, “ ‘(W)ell you just did,’ and walked off,” the report states.

The firefighter filed a complaint because, he said, Rish acted in “a sexual manner.”

Rish characterized the encounter to police as typical “playing around.”

Rish was charged with second-degree assault and battery. He was demoted but still is with the department, Jenkins said. The young firefighter has left. The city paid him $49,601 because of the incident, according to records released to the newspaper.

Three firefighters involved in the St. Patrick’s Day Festival incident this year also were disciplined and no longer are employed by the fire department, the chief said.

Wilson said her concerns grew worse in July, when firefighters posted remarks about Black Lives Matter protesters who briefly blocked motorists’ access to Interstate 126. One captain wrote: “Better not be there when I get off work or there is gonna be some run over dumb asses.”

The captain and two other firefighters lost their jobs.

Wilson said she read the Stewart firm’s findings and then carved out three days in mid-October to go to fire stations and talk directly with firefighters.

Despite the harsh words about the command staff in the consultant’s findings, Wilson said her takeaway was that what rank-and-file firefighters want most to have easier access to Jenkins.

“They were certainly yearning for leadership. But there was never, ‘City manager, we need a change of leadership,’ ” Wilson said. “They wanted to be heard (with) ... less filtering.”

The city manager said she, Baker and Jenkins are working on ways to restore the holidays firefighters lost. However, the chief said that would require hiring about 15 firefighters to fill three round-the-clock shifts.

Wilson said she also is working on ways to get more money for the fire department, especially to improve pay for seasoned firefighters, though she declined to be specific.

But funding for the fire department is split between the city and Richland County, which complicates solutions.

“I’m going to research it – give it my best shot over this year,” Wilson said.

Meanwhile, Jenkins has time to “figure out the structure that works,” she said. “Obviously, I’m going to be watching very closely.”

Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.

What’s wrong with the Columbia Fire Department?

A series of incidents of bad behavior and judgment led to an in-depth analysis of Columbia’s largest department by City Manager Teresa Wilson. Here are some findings and efforts to correct deficiencies.

PROBLEM: Firefighters told hired consultants that they little regard for the command staff and unfair treatment.

SOLUTION: The deputy chief has been transferred, a new assistant chief is hired, fire chief taking steps to win back the rank and file.

PROBLEM: Instances of drinking, sexual harassment, nasty Facebook posts, poor judgment.

SOLUTION: Firefighters involved in questionable conduct were dismissed, demoted or left the department. A Facebook policy is installed. A peer review group is being organized. Other initiatives are being considered.

PROBLEM: Poor pay, job stagnation, attrition stir host of other resentments.

SOLUTION: Firefighters get a share of citywide pay increases, bonuses for acquiring extra skills. City manager pledges to try to return five lost holidays and help create a work environment that retains good firefighters.

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