Chief must still reach out to firefighters

A Times Editorial
Published September 10, 2006

On Tuesday, Clearwater fire Chief Jamie Geer gave the City Council a report on his progress after leading Clearwater Fire and Rescue for two years.

It was a positive report detailing improvements in virtually every phase of the department's work, delivered without much enthusiasm by a tired-sounding Geer. Perhaps he is worn down by his long battle with the union representing Clearwater firefighters. Or maybe he glimpsed the skepticism on the faces of some council members, who received his progress report with more questions than praise. Neither did they give pats on the back to Geer's boss, City Manager Bill Horne.

The city administration has lost the moral high ground to Local 1158 of the International Association of Fire Fighters, which represents the department's rank and file. The city was found guilty of discriminating against a female firefighter by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. On three other recent occasions, a federal hearing officer ruled that the city committed unfair labor practices against union members by threatening their jobs and denying their right to engage in certain union activities. Other complaints still await hearings.

Despite that record of illegal behavior, Horne and Geer continue to tout the progress they have made in the department. Yes, there has been progress, but while Horne and Geer are talking about new training and improved supervision, they are stubbornly ignoring this elephant in the room: Until they can build a better relationship with employees, they will not have the crackerjack department they want.

This is not to say that the city has always been wrong and the union always right. Some union members have behaved deplorably. The union leadership has been as bullheaded about compromise as the city administration. In fact, this union local has been heavy-handed for years, seeking to control the department and its chiefs. The city finally had enough of it and moved, with the hiring of Geer, an outsider, to re-establish control of the department.

This was a department that had a whole lot wrong with it. The department's flawed efforts to fight a disastrous fire in the Dolphin Cove condominiums in 2002 proved that, as did the investigations that followed. A study by an outside consultant, MGT, layered on the criticisms.

Geer has made important changes. He upgraded firefighters' safety gear, added substantially more training, implemented fitness standards, improved supervisory command on all shifts and at fire scenes, adopted tougher standards for handling and storage of narcotics, and created a quarterly recognition program. He hired a number of assistant chiefs with years of experience and outstanding resumes (though the union tries to paint them, and Geer, as people who don't know what they are doing).

Yet ultimately, Geer will fail if he cannot forge ties with his firefighters, including the union leaders who represent them. He cannot do that by communicating with them through e-mails and bulletin board notices, or by continuing to focus on his "successes" while the union racks up victories from hearing officers.

Geer must shelve his resentment and his urge to play hardball, apologize for the things he has done wrong, and start talking with his employees, one on one, face to face, every day.