Commentary: The Cost of Speaking Out Against the Firefighters

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weist

Fire Policies Aimed at Fourth Fire Station Endangered the Public – It was not a complete shock when yesterday’s column on fire staffing and calls for service was met with a post by a retired firefighter that represented a veiled threat to myself and the Vanguard.  After all, it was the summer of 2011 when the Vanguard learned that the firefighters were boycotting the Westlake Market due to their advertising on the Vanguard.

In 2008 when I spoke out against the firefighters during the city council campaign, my wife, who was running for council at the time, dared to call 3% at 50 unsustainable.  The union president, Bobby Weist, we would learn, responded by trying to get my wife and some others fired from their jobs.

In the last few days, I have received documented evidence of intimidation tactics and outright threats given to those who have dared to speak out.  When people’s livelihood is threatened due to differences in opinion, we have reached the stage where civil debate and indeed our entire system of public discourse breaks down.

It was just a year ago that the Vanguard received a less-redacted version of the four-year-old Aaronson Davis Fire Report.  The report was commissioned by the city of Davis following a June 2008 Yolo County Grand Jury report that issued findings against the Davis Fire Department.  While the media and public focused on the sensational headlines of drunken firefighters sleeping overnight at the fire station, it was charges of union cronyism, favoritism, preferential treatment, hostile work environment and retaliation that exposed deep problems throughout city governance.

The Davis City Council in December 2008, in one of the most egregious examples of cronyism and political favoritism, voted by a 3-2 margin, with Sue Greenwald and Lamar Heystek dissenting, not even to allow themselves to read the report.

The Vanguard would sue and finally, in a settled agreement, the city agreed to release new portions of that report, including a portion that demonstrated that union President Bobby Weist was promoted by Former Fire Chief Rose Conroy instead of “at least one of the candidates [who] was demonstrably and significantly more qualified for and deserving of the promotion than [Bobby Weist] promoted by Chief Conroy.”

Investigator and City of Davis Ombudsman Robert Aaronson wrote that, while no one questions Mr. Weist’s skills or abilities, “a significant number of firefighters, including some who were not otherwise disgruntled, believed that one particular candidate was far more deserving than Bobby Weist – the individual who finished fourth and first and in the second tier (in the assessment center the division chiefs’ interviews and the chiefs final ranking, respectively).”

More critically, however, is that the report, which is still nearly half blacked out from public reading, contains an entire section entitled, “Retaliation and hostile work environment allegations against Chief Conroy.”  This had been previously redacted, along with the statement by Mr. Aaronson, “The disgruntled employees all professed to fear of retaliation for speaking out about organizational issues, particularly the role that favoritism seemed to play in punishing them.”

After SEVERAL PAGES OF CONTINUED REDACTION, Mr. Aaronson wrote, “There may or may not be provable instances of retaliation… There is a single instance of claimed favoritism about which I have gathered some telling information.”

He added, “It is concerning to me that there is a minority of employees… who fear retaliation from Chief Conroy.”  He concluded from this information “that the number of people with this fear is significantly higher than the ones who were willing to admit it to me.”

The Vanguard has heard reports that a minority of firefighters continue to be harassed and retaliated against for their opposition to certain policies.  When the council failed to act in early March, it simply acted to prolong the agony for those employees.

In the due course of these debates and discussion, we inevitably hear the separation between the job of the firefighters to advocate for their pay and benefits on the one hand and perform their jobs protecting the public.  While bad behavior has been called out by those such as the auditor Bob Aaronson in his 2008 report, great pains have been taken to tell the public that the job they perform is exemplary.

Mr. Aaronson went out of his way in his report to praise the overall work of Chief Conroy, Captain Weist, and the rest of the Davis firefighters.

What we have seen now and, more importantly, can document is a pattern of behavior that is vicious, retaliatory and, most of all, petty.  At some point the question needs to be asked as to why the community should be willing to entrust public safety policy to ones who have shown themselves to be vicious and nasty to people who even modestly question their policy objectives.

Worse yet is that we actually now have evidence that the firefighters, who have attempted to rally the public, arguing that their first priority is public safety, have for the last twenty years fought policies that would have made the public more safe.

As the Vanguard reported over the weekend, a series of policy decisions were made by the Davis firefighters to make their response system less efficient and effective.  We can never know if people’s lives were actually placed into jeopardy by these policy decisions, but we can at the very least determine that the firefighters implemented policies that were poorly considered and put the public at risk.

The idea of the boundary drop is about 20 years old.  According to sources familiar with the situation, the policy was never implemented because Bobby Weist and the Davis firefighters did not want it.  We now know why.

Chief Scott Kenley noted in his audit report, “It is somewhat baffling that as early as 1993, the parties have received information and/or agreed that it makes sense to drop the boundaries between the agencies, yet to date, the UC Davis Engine at their headquarters station is not included in any first alarm response within the Davis City limits.”

Chief Kenley did not account for opposition from the union, and now we have to suspect Chief Rose Conroy herself.

“We moved in the correct direction when UC Fire signed an agreement with the City of Davis for dispatching. However, as stated above, we have not moved towards closest unit response,” a source told the Vanguard.

Last fall, the Vanguard was told that one of the reasons that this change has not occurred is that Bobby Weist is dead set against it, apparently viewing a UC Davis fire response to calls within the city as taking away work from his own membership.

But new evidence suggests it goes deeper than that.  It goes to the heart of Chief Rose Conroy and Union President Bobby Weist setting policies to help convince policymakers in city government and on the council to implement a fourth fire station.

The impact of this policy is critical to understand.  As our analysis shows, whenever Station 31 is on a call, Stations 32 and 33 spend a considerable amount of time responding to calls from Station 31.

Simply put, had the UC Davis fire station been able to respond to first alarm calls, there would have been far fewer of the 262 times that Station 32 left its area uncovered to cover Station 31, and far fewer of the 345 times Station 33 came into Station 31’s district.

During those times, huge areas of the town were left uncovered, and fires and medical emergencies had delayed response times.

Analysis shows that using Station 34 could have virtually eliminated this problem of simultaneous calls, but for the firefighters public safety was not of first importance.  Rather, making the case for a fourth fire station dominated consideration.

But it was not just boundary drop.  Other policies we have shown made just as critical an impact.  Under Rose Conroy came the policy that the rescue apparatus was tied to Engine 31.  That decision was compounded by the rule that the Station 31 rescue vehicle responds to all auto accidents, even if the accident is not in Station 31 area.

This problem could easily have been solved by uncoupling the rescue vehicle from the engine.  This is part of the plan that former interim Chief Scott Kenley devised, where there would be three firefighters on the engine and two on the rescue apparatus, increasing the number of available firefighters at the central fire station from 4 to 5.

However, Chief Conroy, even though they had an excess of fire personnel up until the economic crisis, refused to allow the decoupling of the rescue vehicle, it seems, in part because it would help eliminate the problem of simultaneous calls and thereby undermine the case for a fourth fire station.

The policy was so strict that the fire engine was not allowed to go back into service when a medical emergency required one of the firefighters to stay with the ambulance until it arrives at the hospital.

In these cases, when Engine 31 was down to three on an engine, Chief Conroy’s policy would not allow them to respond to calls – because she felt that less than a four-man crew was not safe for a fire call.  But of course, she also didn’t let them respond to medical calls either.

This policy has been recently changed so that the Engine 31 can now respond with a three-person crew to medical calls so that an entire unit is not taken off line for periods of time, throwing the entire system into chaos.

It appears that none of this was accidental, that it was known at the time that the current policies were actually leaving wide swaths of the public exposed to potential emergencies, with emergency personnel effectively out of place.

And, of course, the current plan fixes most of those problems – and so even though it calls for one fewer firefighter on each shift, the public under the Kenley plan will actually be far safer.  The firefighters have responded with a public education campaign, designed to scare the hell out of the public.

The reality is that the public should be scared that politics, both on the part of the firefighters as well as past city councils, actually exposed the public to undue risk.  We can only hope that no one lost a life because we intentionally constructed a system that was ineffective and inefficient, hoping to convince the councils of the past to incur the expense of a new fire station and, more importantly, 12 more firefighters.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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30 thoughts on “Commentary: The Cost of Speaking Out Against the Firefighters”

  1. Neutral

    [i] We can only hope that no one lost their lives . . .[/i]

    While I agree with your commentaries about the fire department’s upper management, and deplore their knuckle-dragging attempts at intimidation, you’ve clearly crossed a line with this one. You have insinuated the fire fighters would actually let someone die for political reasons. Argue as you might, that is the clear implication of your last sentence, which is clearly ‘[i] . . vicious, retaliatory, and most of all petty[/i]’.

    Retract the sentence, let the rest of a fairly decent commentary stand.

  2. biddlin

    “Like in Alameda where firefighters let a guy die so they could let the city know they were upset about the cuts to the department water rescue program”

    Totally spun, predictably despicable comment !

  3. biddlin

    “In 2008 when I spoke out against the firefighters during the city council campaign, my wife, who was running for council at the time, dared to call 3% at 50 unsustainable. The union president, Bobby Weist, we would learn, responded by trying to get my wife and some others fired from their jobs.”

    That’s what I get for being late to the party ! Now I understand your chronic butthurt over the FF’s union .

  4. Steve Hayes

    Thank you Davis citizens who have the “gonadal fortitude” to take a stand on issues that are vital to them. By our actions, we ultimately encourage the “go along to get along” citizens to take a stand themselves on issues important to them. Finally, thank you, David, for providing The Vanguard as a forum for thought and action in our fair city.

  5. SouthofDavis

    biddin wrote:

    > Totally spun, predictably despicable comment !

    Click the link below to hear the firefighter say in his own words that he would watch a child drown (since due to budget cuts they are not allowed to enter the water to save anyone).

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mjqJaEpucDY

    To give the guy some credit he did say that if he was “off duty” he would go in to save a kid (so we better hope the guy is “off duty” when one of our kids is drowning)…

  6. Phil Coleman

    One guy popping off about refusing to save a drowning child is representative of nothing. It most certainly does not reflect public policy or practice for any first responder, on duty or off.

    Also, we need to delete the plural of “firefighters” and make it one guy, coming from several counties distant. It is a despicable remark and had been better left unsaid. Since is has been said, it certainly does not warrant repeating or given any credibility.

  7. David M. Greenwald

    “Now I understand your chronic butthurt over the FF’s union .”

    You really don’t. This is now the last remaining obstacle to fixing the city’s finances and that’s what started all of this in the first place.

  8. Nancy Price

    Seems to me that part of the story here is the City’s and City Council’s failure over the years to oversee the Fire Department and implement policies in regard to the issues outlined here to ensure the safety of the city residents and efficiencies in regard to cost and service.

  9. AdRemmer

    [b]David M. Greenwald[/b] wrote: [quote]When people’s livelihood is threatened due to differences in opinion, we have reached the stage where civil debate and indeed our entire system of public discourse breaks down[/quote]

    James Rosen revealed yesterday that Benghazi whistleblowers have been threatened by the Obama administration according to their attorneys.

    “I’m not talking generally, I’m talking specifically about Benghazi – that people have been threatened,” Toensing said in an interview Monday. “And not just the State Department. People have been threatened at the CIA.”

    “It’s frightening, and they’re doing some very despicable threats to people,” she said. “Not ‘we’re going to kill you,’ or not ‘we’re going to prosecute you tomorrow,’ but they’re taking career people and making them well aware that their careers will be over [if they cooperate with congressional investigators].”

    Boy howdy, I can’t wait to read the soon to be published PVoD story wherein David’s point is expanded as it pertains to leadng from behind, Blamer-in-Chief…

  10. JustSaying

    [quote][b]The Cost of Speaking Out Against the Firefighters[/b]

    “In 2008 when I spoke out against the firefighters during the city council campaign, my wife, who was running for council at the time, dared to call 3% at 50 unsustainable. The union president, Bobby Weist, we would learn, responded by trying to get my wife and some others fired from their jobs.”

    “In the last few days, I have received documented evidence of intimidation tactics and outright threats given to those who have dared to speak out. When people’s livelihood is threatened due to differences in opinion, we have reached the stage where civil debate and indeed our entire system of public discourse breaks down.”[/quote]There are two stories to be told here. Have you reported the first one since you learned about Weist’s disgraceful activities? Was any action taken by those on the receiving end of his tactics?

    I look forward to reading the second story (that you’ve uncovered recently). If this turns out to be true, I’d hope that the union members themselves would remove Weist from his position. A few thousand dollars in the paycheck can’t make up for the horrible reputation our local firefighters have been developing in recent years.

  11. David M. Greenwald

    JustSaying: The first was not reported on for a variety of reasons. The second won’t be reported on because I need to protect people in vulnerable positions. But I do have the proof – if it ever becomes necessary to back up my story.

  12. SouthofDavis

    David wrote:

    > SOD: I would prefer that the discussion here be about Davis.

    and

    > Adremmer: I’d prefer we remain on topic.

    The topic is “The Cost of Speaking Out Against the Firefighters” and you (personally) would be foolish to ignore what the firefighters in neighboring counties are doing to punish those who speak out against them getting paid even more and more and getting more and more money for cool stuff like Zodiac boats (that the a fire department in a neighboring county used to go abalone diving). I also think it would be a good idea to strip away the partisan spin of Adremmer’s comment and take a look at how both the right and the left are working together to punish ANYONE that speaks out against the increase in the size of government (and their personal pay and benefits)…

  13. Davis Progressive

    “That’s what I get for being late to the party ! Now I understand your chronic butthurt over the FF’s union . “

    mr. biddlin, i read the article to mean that david was suggesting there was a price to be paid for his reporting. you seem to be suggesting here that his reporting is due to some perceived injustice, i see it as the opposite – the injustice occurred because he spoke out, he didn’t speak out because of the injustice. correct me if i’m wrong.

  14. Frankly

    SOD and Adremmer’s posts have relevancy for a larger issues of unaccountable government.

    I think there are very, very few, if any, firefighters or police officers that would purposely allow a citizen to be harmed to generate public outcry to strengthen their union’s bargaining position.

    However, it is clear that we have politicians in office, and union officials, that owe no moral conflict for starving the public of service for this same purpose. If a conservative politicians touches certain government services, the left gets its’ underwear in a significant bunch. However, they fall as silent as dead crickets when their beloved politicians and union heads do the same in order to enflame the voting public and cause them to demand tax increases.

    There is a moral challenge to this method of starving certain services over others only to punish certain voters and to make political points. When the voting public votes to cut, or the political process elects to cut, then officials in control of the budget purse strings should be made to minimize service impacts while complying with the cuts. In fact, their jobs should be in jeopardy for failing to implement budget cuts without causing notable service impacts.

    And, if you are prone to stomp your feet at this and claim it cannot be done, just go visit the workplace of your neighbor working in an even moderately-competitive private-sector job. That is exactly what your neighbor deals with every day… learning how to do more with less.

    It is time we banish public sector unions, outsource more of our government service to private providers, and move back to a model of service that is constantly improving with costs that are sustainable and don’t rise greater than the CPI.

  15. Davis Progressive

    [quote]It is time we banish public sector unions, outsource more of our government service to private providers, and move back to a model of service that is constantly improving with costs that are sustainable and don’t rise greater than the CPI.[/quote]

    To me that’s not a good answer either. I have seen a lot of horrible reviews over a prison privatization movement. To me this displaces responsibility anyway. The problem is with the officeholders not holding the public employees accountable, not standing up to do the right thing, and the public burying its head in the sand and looking the other way as these things occurred.

    None of your solution fix that ultimate problem. Fine, you banish unions and outsource, but without scrutiny by the officeholders and the public, it just shifts the problem to another area.

  16. SouthofDavis

    Frankly wrote:

    > It is time we banish public sector unions, outsource
    > more of our government service to private providers,
    > and move back to a model of service that is constantly
    > improving with costs that are sustainable and don’t
    > rise greater than the CPI.

    Then Davis Progressive wrote:

    > To me that’s not a good answer either. I have seen
    > a lot of horrible reviews over a prison privatization
    > movement. To me this displaces responsibility anyway.

    It is important to make sure that those on the left can learn that some (but not all) privatization works well (and some just sucks) and those on the right to learn that and some (but not all) public employee unions work well (while others suck).

    I’m in favor of unions, I’m just not in favor of the federal government forcing many private individuals to pay union dues and forcing many local governments to negotiate with unions. If a union is good people will want to join it (and pay dues) and a city will want to negotiate with it.

    The current make people join a union and make the city negotiate with it reminds me a lot of the system we had years ago (that many on the far right would like to go back to) in many parts of the country where if you wanted to get a job at most business in town you had to be a member of a local church and tithe (aka pay church member union dues). And the city council would not do anything without getting the OK of a church elder (the church version of the union boss).

  17. Davis Progressive

    i’m not opposed to privatization on principle. my belief – again – is that the problem here is not solved by going to private companies or away from unions because the core problem is one of accountability by the government itself and its constituents and without accountability, no policy is really going to work.

  18. Frankly

    I work in an industry that relies on a government program. The program works very well because the government is not delivering end-user services, and instead is focused on governing and overseeing the industry that provides the end-user service through the program.

    The private companies involved in the program are true partners with the federal agency overseeing the program. It is this public-private partnership model that I think we need more of… and less of the situation where the government provides end-user services.

    With respect to firefighting, we should be able to create and oversight department that would create and manage the service contract(s) of private service providers that would bid on the contract and perform the services. The pursuit of profit and the principle “what gets measured gets done” are wonderful things when leveraged appropriately.

    We have public employee unions that are connected to the very politicians that have decision authority over what we pay their members and what work we require them to do. This situation has not worked out well in terms of value for the dollar and budget sustainability. Now it is also not working in terms of the services we expect, as those are being cut. This model is bankrupting cities across the state and throughout the country. We are fools to think that there is an full and final remedy to be found within this situation.

    We need to take a look at every single government service and outsource it if there are private providers available to bid on it. The remaining government employees should be focused on the work to oversee and manage these contacts and business relationships as a form of business partnership. There are many models for how this works in private industry. Companies outsource things that another provider can do faster, better cheaper. There are lot of things that Davis government provides as direct end-user services that private providers can do faster, better cheaper.

  19. Frankly

    [i]core problem is one of accountability by the government itself and its constituents and without accountability, no policy is really going to work.[/i]

    I agree. So, make it accountable. Getting the public unions out of the way will do a lot to help make it accountable. Certainly there is a risk of crony capitalism, but there are best-practice control in FASB and GAAP accounting practices to uncover these things. So, just require that all government books be subject to an external audit from an outside private audit firm. What we have today is clear and routine crony unionism. There are no best-practice processes for dealing with that. It is why we need to rid ourselves of it.

  20. Matt Williams

    Don Shor said . . .

    [i]”Stay on the topic, please, and keep it local.”[/i]

    Beauty is in the eye of the beholder Don. I personally believe this comment thread has been absolutely on topic and to think that this issue is purely a local one is naive at best. I welcome Frankly’s and Davis Progressive’s and SouthofDavis’ comments on this subject. Hopefully Nancy Price and others will weigh in as well.

  21. Mr.Toad

    One thing many unions do is offer protection to workers who engage in free speech. Too bad Frankly doesn’t need such protection because he can write here under a nom de plume as i do.

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