Union officials clash with fire chief over proposed policy change

Union leader says proposal puts ‘everyone here in peril.’

By MIKE ANTHONY

Union officials and Mehlville Fire Protection District Chief Tim White recently clashed over proposed changes to the district’s seniority policy.

White has proposed changing the district’s seniority policy regarding vacancies, fill-in personnel and temporary fill-ins.

The chief contends his proposed changes to the district’s Employee Manual of Policies and Procedures, or EMoPP, would enhance public safety by having the best-qualified personnel serve residents rather than having personnel selected “based on seniority and politics.”

But two representatives of the International Association of Fire Fighters contend White’s proposed changes would jeopardize public safety, placing both residents and and firefighters at risk.

Mark Woolbright, a captain with the Pattonville Fire Protection District and IAFF 2nd District vice president, and Nick Fahs, an MFPD captain and president of Local 1889, addressed the Board of Directors March 11 with their concerns.

In a prepared statement, Woolbright said White’s proposal “does nothing less than place everyone here in peril … To put it in a layman’s terms, you have three firefighters on your pumpers. Most districts have a slow influx of new firefighters as the older firefighters retire. For numerous reasons, you are well aware that you have a relatively inexperienced fire department. You here at Mehlville typically have a newer firefighter on the back step of your pumper, some with less than one year on since graduating from the Fire Academy. They are willing and anxious to learn the art and science of firefighting.

“You also have an engineer that typically has in excess of 15 to 25 years experience in firefighting. This leaves the firefighter in training who may have as little as five years experience as a fire/medic who is learning how to engineer and trying to move up the ranks as far as becoming an acting captain,” he continued.

“Currently, the experienced engineer moves over to act in the role of captain if that seat is vacant for vacations, illness or to be the acting deputy chief. This allows the experienced acting captain to be responsible for entering burning structures with the new hire or graduate. This is the evolution of a firefighter. Chief White’s proposal before you will allow that newer engineer with five to eight years on to take the new hire into a burning structure by allowing him to be the acting captain over the more experienced firefighter.

“Doing this would leave the most experienced firefighter standing in the street with the pumper while two newer employees enter the burning structure, which would be a recipe for disaster,” Woolbright said.

He later said, “… This EMoPP change is a recipe for disaster. It places your residents in danger and it places your firefighters in danger. If you approve this proposal, a tragedy will occur, to what degree we do not know. Someone will be hurt or killed.

“When that tragedy occurs, you all will be held liable. Your firefighters want nothing more than to continue to improve the fire district and ensure the safety of your residents. But this proposal does nothing to achieve those goals. This misguided proposal should scare everyone who lives here, because it will jeopardize public safety. It’s just a matter of time.”

White said he had prepared a statement “because I was aware that Capt. Fahs was going to accuse me of putting forth a policy or directive that he considers unsafe.”

Noting he was “offended” by Fahs’ accusation, the chief said, “His perception is based on distortion that is derived from the premise that seniority equals capability. I will have to explain that the definition of seniority is experience that is derived through exposure of time. That does not mean that an individual is capable at all.

“Capt. Fahs makes the accusation that I am implementing unsafe firefighting practices, but actually what is seen behind the smoke screen is that I am actually correcting the unsafe practices that have been perpetuated for over 25 years … The fact is that the union put forth the policies and rules here for over the last few decades,” White continued.

“They wanted people in charge of apparatus and engine houses not based on whether they can meet the needs of the taxpayers, but rather based on seniority and politics where there was no testing of these individuals. People were put in these positions as assigned by the union and rubber stamped by the Board of Directors.”

Noting that environment “no longer exists,” the chief said, “All employees will be tested for competency so that our residents will have the best, which is what they have always wanted. Key personnel with proven competency — proven competency — through testing will be put in key positions.”

Fahs later said, “… There are ways to come to a solution to this other than — he just wants to eliminate the (EMoPP) page with no ‘what’s going to be.’ To eliminate this without a replacement or a solution is frightening to me. I just don’t want a new person that hasn’t been in very many house fires to be in danger …”

But White said testing employees for competency is the key to his proposal.

“… Putting somebody through this test may very actually reveal that everybody in place is actually competent. I do not know that and neither does Capt. Fahs because nobody was ever tested here,” he said. “This is a part of making sure that the residents are actually taken care of in a safe way through testing, making sure that they (firefighters) are truly competent …”

Assistant Chief Jim Hampton later said, “… What the chief is trying to do is get the best guy in position. So if everyone’s given equal opportunity to test and the person with the most seniority can do better, then he’s done better. But if someone can come be-hind him with 10 less years’ seniority and do better, maybe there’s an issue here with that person. And the chief’s not even saying that person isn’t a viable employee, but maybe he needs to do something to improve himself.

“So it’s going to do a lot of things, but what it’s really going to do is it’s going to prove are these people really capable of doing their thing? And if you get younger people that need to gain that experience also, it’s going to — overall, I think it’s going to really help the fire department that these younger people are given an opportunity to work in those positions and learn as they go through the trades …”

White told the Call the Board of Directors is scheduled to vote on his proposal when it meets at 5 p.m. today — March 25.