Is the Davis Firefighters’ Union Engaging in a Work Slowdown?

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Firefighter Union President Bobby Weist pickets outside of City Hall in 2013.
Firefighter Union President Bobby Weist pickets outside of City Hall in 2013.

Over the last several weeks, sources familiar with the situation in the city had been reporting to the Vanguard that the Davis firefighters’ union had been effectively engaging in a work slowdown, doing the minimum possible so as to not get in trouble, but cutting back on all other extra work.

The data released by Chief Nathan Trauernicht this weekend, published by the Vanguard on Monday, for the first time clearly indicates such a trend regarding training.

Fire-September-11

The data show a very clear trend from March 2014 to September 2014 where training hours in total, and averaged by employee, dropped from around 30 hours per employee per month down to as low as 15 hours by August, before rebounding slightly back to 20 by September.

Is this clear evidence that Davis firefighters are intentionally reducing their training hours in protest of a number of policies that were implemented over their objections? These include boundary drop, staff reductions from 12 to 11 per shift, decoupling of the rescue apparatus, and most significantly the shared management agreement which has put Chief Nathan Trauernicht in charge of both the UC Davis and Fire Departments.

Chief Trauernicht noted last night, “You have to keep in mind that this is only a SEVEN month snapshot. There can be any number of circumstances that impact training hours.”

He stated, “I do believe that it is reasonable to expect that the hourly trendline SHOULD remain relatively even, increase, or even occasionally dip down to a standard baseline before rising again.”

To illustrate this possibility, the chief provided the Vanguard with the entire year of 2013, which shows both agencies’ training data.

Fire-training-1

Here we see what is a much more typical pattern, in which the monthly totals seemingly randomly fluctuate between increases and decreases in the training hours. That is not the pattern we see with the Davis firefighters in 2014.

But there is more to the data than just this.

DFD Training by Shift

The Chief is able to break down the training by three shifts – A, B, C. While the overall trendline is a downward trend across the board, we note that Shift A, with the exception of July, had the least amount of training hours each month of any shift. Shift A is manned by Union President Bobby Weist.

Last August (2013), the Vanguard reported that the firefighters’ union had filed an unfair labor practices action against the city, alleging that the city had disciplined Union President Bobby Weist for union activities.

While personnel matters and personnel reviews are generally exempt from public disclosure, and rightly so, the moment Mr. Weist went to PERB (Public Employment Relations Board), the matter became a public record.

In his complaint, Mr. Weist claimed that on March 13, 2013, he attempted to take vacation leave in a amount less than 24 hours.  He argued that no other captains were on leave at this time, but that Division Chief Shawn Kinney “denied Captain Weist’s leave, claiming that Captain Weist had not fulfilled a required number of training hours and, thus, needed to attend a training session.”

On April 9, 2013, Fire Division Chief Bruce Fry, in a memo to Captain Weist, noted in a long list of complaints that Mr. Weist does not meet current standards for things such as completing 20 hours of training each month for himself and his crew.

This was, in fact, not the first time such a problem has been noted.  The fire audit noted that his shift rarely hit its training hours and he failed to file reports in a complete and prompt matter. In the memo it stated that he would receive written evaluations monthly for the following six months.

Division Chief Fry wrote, “You have over 28 years of fire experience.  It is expected the quality of your work will reflect that experience.” It added, “Failure to meet standards during the remainder of the 1 year period will result in a recommendation for discipline.”

Does all of this amount to a slowdown on the part of the union president and the membership of the Davis Professional Firefighters Association?

Chief Trauernicht stated, “While I can’t say that the order for a slowdown has has been given (because I don’t know that to be a fact), I can say that we don’t get a lot of eager participation in committees, projects, and in some trainings.”

“The reasoning that is commonly heard goes back to the contract imposition and a myriad of other issues.  Morale is very very very low and I actually sympathize with some of it as some of the issues put me, and the rest of the shared management team, in a frustrating if not impossible position of dealing with inherited issues that are significant in magnitude,” he stated.

At the same time, the Chief stated, “I remain hopeful that we will reach the day where, even with the barriers to progress from bargaining and the stigma of fire reforms, we will still find a way to move forward.”

Along that front, there was good news in the September report, as well. The data show that boundary drop and the move and cover strategy is working.

Fire-September-10

Wrote Chief Trauernicht, “You can clearly see the impact of Engine 34’s role now that the boundary has been dropped, and the impact of the new move and cover strategy, in the amount of times that 32 and 33 now stay in their districts ready to provide service to those portions of the community.”

The result is that, despite the drop from 12 to 11 personnel, most people in the community are better covered than they were before the changes.

Chief Trauernicht stated, “It is impressive no matter what issues challenge shared management. Certainly a time for the community to be proud of improved services.”

However, these improvements may be challenged in the coming weeks and months by political forces bent on undoing these changes. More on that tomorrow.

—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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26 thoughts on “Is the Davis Firefighters’ Union Engaging in a Work Slowdown?”

  1. Barack Palin

    I was wondering when or if this was already happening.  It’s typical union tactics.  I’m surprised it hasn’t shown up in other areas too.  It’s time to play hardball with the firefighters.  If they can’t do the job for $175,000 compensation packages there are certainly other qualified applicants that can and for far less pay.

    1. Miwok

      How much less? Would immigrant farm workers satisfy the requirement? McDonald’s workers?

      I recently worked the polls at Mace Blvd Fire Station. There were only three firefighters on duty, and I think asleep when we arrived. Through the day others came and went, cleaning equipment out of one truck and then put it all back. Seemed a little funny to have four trucks for three guys. Later in our day two or three alerts sent them out. Each truck I was told had a different purpose.

      While they were coming back kids were awed by their FD and the trucks. The guys posed for pictures, gave the kids swag and let them sit or stand on the trucks. $175k a year? maybe cheap at any price, if they can afford to live and work in the same city, and raise a family knowing their benefits will take care of them just in case. At 175K a year, many people cannot even rent a house in Davis.

        1. Miwok

          When you mention 175K “compensation package” how much is salary? Taxes? Houses with a modest garage big enough for a family is usually 2500 to 3000 or up per month. Utilities, especially water bills are going up by 3 to five times what they were. Do the math,

          The Sac Bee claims the 2012 average salary is $119K for firefighters. Yank 30% off the top for taxes and their “contributions” and you get $83,000. After rent for one of those 3 bd 2ba homes at 3K per month plus a few hundred a month for utilities, and that 83 is down to 47K or less, with lots less if you have kids, cars and wives to support. Now you are down to less than $25 an hour for a guy who runs into burning houses to save your life if need be.

          If I am wrong on this, please let me know. I just crunch numbers a lot, and the recent job I have at a major university, according to their press releases, claims they pay everyone a living wage. Mine is a “contract” paying no benefits, no SSI and no retirement.

  2. SODA

    What are the requirements for training and disciplinary actions available if not met. I cannot believe it is elective with no accountability if not performed??

    1. PhilColeman

      I’ll say this because the Fire Chief can’t, at least publicly. I should also say right here and now, I’ve never met him. And SODA, you will not like this answer.

      Yes, there is a system of accountability for supervisors to fulfill minimum training requirements, both for him(her)self and the subordinate employees. In performance appraisals, it’s totally proper to note the supervisor in question has the poorest performing unit in the organization. Supervisors are expected to lead by example. Such an appraisal is devastating in any subsequent attempt for future promotion opportunities. But I tend to think that weapon is not in play here.

      Like what is commanded in “The Art of War,” you must “pick your battles.” A chief can move against a union official for the reasons implicitly alleged in this story. But is it a battle you want to pick, and can you ultimately win? Were the chief to proceed administratively in this instance (again, assuming the story is valid), the action CAN take on the appearance of spiteful retaliation, instead of responsible leadership. That is what Bobby would allege, I can absolutely guarantee that. I can also guarantee that the many, many employee protection laws and policies would be fully mobilized, including all those that have no relevance whatsoever. The media loves stories like these, Bobby would be a public martyr for months on end.

      Our current (and past) mindset as a culture is to inherently side with the little guy against the bully. Public leaders can, and are, very easily depicted as abusive when they, in never examined or disclosed fact, were just doing their job. There is a pre-disposed mindset in the public eye to believe the “beleaguered.” I openly defy anybody to say that’s not true, and you can just look farther there here for a hundred examples. Say, Ed Prieto.

      If it were my call, I’d just swallow my administrative pride and responsibility and let this run it course. In this instance, the “supervisor” has repeatedly displayed a consistent pattern of PR gaffs in the past several months. Thanks to the Vanguard and Rifkin, this culture is now exposed. That would remain my battleground, just stay silent, publicly.

      1. Anon

        “If it were my call, I’d just swallow my administrative pride and responsibility and let this run it course. In this instance, the “supervisor” has repeatedly displayed a consistent pattern of PR gaffs in the past several months. Thanks to the Vanguard and Rifkin, this culture is now exposed. That would remain my battleground, just stay silent, publicly.”

        Sounds like wise counsel.  Sometimes you have to let a child throw a tantrum, keep calm until the tantrum runs its course, then continue on with life as if nothing had happened.  Every parent has experienced this phenomenon at one time or another.  Give in to the tantrums, expect more tantrums.  Ignore the tantrums, and they usually stop because the child is not getting their way.

  3. South of Davis

    I’m no big defender of the Fire Department, but I don’t see any story here.

    Sure the training has gone down a little, but it looks like a drop in August (when it is 100 degrees and wearing firefighting clothes is tough) has been normal for both UC and DFD.

    I was recently riding my bike past the South Davis station and I could see they were training with some junk cars behind the fence.

     

    1. Davis Progressive

      you don’t see a story in a story that continues to expose the efforts of the union to disrupt the system because they have been dealt a series of losses?

      one interesting thing that david didn’t mention is the fact that contrary to popular belief, the davis firefighters are not on the forefront of firefighting, in fact they are probably ten to twenty years behind and one reason for that is by design so that bobby and at one point rose conroy could remain in control.  the training issue is a real problem.  people laud the service that they get, but that’s probably because they don’t know any better.

    2. hpierce

      It would be interesting to compare actual training hours/expenditures, with the amounts budgeted over time (and I’ll say right now that a 3-5 year “event horizon” would be more informative than one 0f 18-24 months).  I do know that for years, training budgets have been early on the chopping block in other departments, as a “soft cost”, which is easier to give up by a department when they are told to find 10-20% reductions in their budgets.  If hours/resources for training have been increased or held static, in the budget, then not used, that would point to “slow-down”.  If however, those budgets have been reduced, a reduction in training is, in fact, “following orders”.  More information, over a longer time, is necessary to come to conclusions, in my view.

      I suspect the fire service is different than other departments, in that the trainers are more likely to be “in-house”, and hours available for training are more flexible.

      Sidebar… noticed another difference in “de-coupling”…  much more rare to see two pieces of fire apparatus at the grocery stores to get food.  The question remains, why is city equipment/time used to shop for groceries, when all other employees who bring food to eat at work do so on their “own time”, with their personal vehicles?

      1. tj

        Grocery shopping — I asked about this several years ago.  The answer given was that firemen have to be with their equipment at all times, in case of emergency.

        But other employees bring their food with them when their work day starts.

        It’s amazing how much time some firemen spend at the Nugget, browsing slowly up and down each aisle, or leisurely deciding, after much discussion, what they want prepared by the deli staff.  You’d think they were on vacation.

        “Little Guy”  — People who know how extremely, or extravagantly, well paid these firemen are, probably don’t regard them as the “little guys”.

        Speaking of pay, it seems strange Davis police are paid for 12 hour shifts, but only work 11 hours when dinner is taken into account.  If they’re working out in their nice on-site gym, then a 12 hour paid shift is even less than 11 hours.

    3. TrueBlueDevil

      DP, here is an idea you might like. Why not bring in an outside evaluation to see if we are up to snuff, or not.

      The FF community is extremely tight, professionally and socially, so bringing in an outside source who would be brutally honest may be tough to find. They tend to stick together.

  4. Anon

    The minute a firefighter does his job incompetently, there will be hell to pay one way or another.  Firefighters are professionals, put their lives on the line, want to protect each other from harm.  It is not in any firefighter’s best interests to not remain competently trained.

    1. TrueBlueDevil

      Don’t forget the perks of retiring at 50 at 100k a year, for life. That’s why when slots open up in some cities, there are over 1,000 applicants for a handful of positions.

        1. hpierce

          Do you understand 2.7 @ 57?  Under the 3% @ 50, a FF with 30 yrs of service would get 90%… at 35 years of service, they’d get 90% [tops out @ 90%].  Under 2.7 @ 57, a FF with 34 yrs of service would get over 91%.  At 40 years of service, they’d get 108%.  Interesting that you are so progressive that for 10 more years of service, they’d go from 90% of final year salary to 108% of final 3 year average of salary.  Maybe some current FF’s would want to opt for the new formula, and stick around for a bit.  Pretty sure I would, if I was a FF.  But I’m not.

  5. Tia Will

    I may have missed some information that was previously presented and if so apologize for the need for re education.

    1. What is the minimum number of  training hours required ?

    2. Over what time span is this minimum distributed….6 months, 1 year, 2 years ?

    3. Are there subsets of training required ? Firefighting ? Medical calls ? Management of hazardous materials ?

    4. How is successful completion of training assessed and tracked ?  Are there exemptions for any reason ?

    5. What is the penalty structure for failure to complete required trainings ?

    Without knowing this information, I don’t think that it is possible to draw conclusions from the information presented here. Such fluctuations in hours could represent deliberate resistance, or could represent normal anticipated variation based on the timing of the scheduled trainings and other departmental needs such as vacation coverage or coverage for sick call. Perhaps more will be forth coming but I think it is too soon to be drawing conclusions on what has been presented so far.

  6. Anon

    “Such fluctuations in hours could represent deliberate resistance, or could represent normal anticipated variation based on the timing of the scheduled trainings and other departmental needs such as vacation coverage or coverage for sick call. Perhaps more will be forth coming but I think it is too soon to be drawing conclusions on what has been presented so far.”

    Well said!

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