Archived Story

Report: City needs to let fire department be

Published 10:13am Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The recent investigation into then-fire chief Dan Wilson by city council is part of a larger trend of the city being too involved with day-to-day operations of the fire department, often spurred by firefighters who circumvent command and “run” to council with concerns.

This according to a report written by Margaret Skelton, the Minneapolis-based attorney who was hired by the city to investigate allegedly unfavorable working conditions at the station under Wilson— an issue brought to the forefront by council members Steve King, Janet Anderson, Marian Clennon and John Martin, as well as a firefighter who filed a letter of complaint against Wilson in September.

The report was recently released by the city, which announced in late January that the investigation would be called off. In the report, Skelton said that internal issues at the fire department should by-and-large be dealt with in-house. Not doing so can undermine command, she added.

“In the past, the city council has unintentionally exacerbated some of the problems at the fire department,” Skelton wrote. “Fire department employees have circumvented the proper lines of communication and gone directly to the council with concerns. In order for the fire department to function effectively, this needs to stop.”

Citing a 2001 report written by Harry Brull of consulting firm Personnel Decisions International, Skelton noted that this has been a long-standing issue in the city of Austin.

“Unfortunately, this has contributed to the dysfunction within the department,” Skelton wrote.

To address this, the attorney recommended that the department hire an assistant chief to help with some personnel issues and improve the station’s command structure.

Skelton also recommended that the city create more structure within the ranks. Currently, there is a commander position and an inspector position below the chief, but no other established rankings for the remaining firefighters.

“Only a permanent command structure or pecking order establishes who is in charge and who has specific responsibilities,” Skelton wrote.

In addition, the attorney said better training would lead to a more “professional” department. Skelton noted that while not required by state law, the station’s chief may want to consider making firefighter licensure an in-house requirement, given the relative youth and inexperience of the staff. Currently, only three out of nine full-time firefighters have a state license, according to the report.

The report also addressed the council moving forward with a new fire chief following Wilson’s retirement in December.

“The (Austin Fire Civil Service) Commission should hire someone that the city council trusts and provide that person with an outline of the council’s goals,” the report states. “Absent extraordinary circumstances, thereafter, the city council should step back and allow the fire chief to run the department.”

Mayor Tom Stiehm said he agreed with Skelton’s recommendation to allow the fire department to largely run independently, noting that council “absolutely” should have stayed out of the recent Wilson issue. However, his hands were tied because the investigation had a majority of council behind it.

“(The fire department investigation) certainly isn’t an example we should start using with other departments,” he said.

Stiehm said he also agreed with Skelton’s recommendation regarding structure at the station, adding that an improved command system would better handle personnel issues.

The mayor said this could include hiring an assistant chief, which he said was something the city will “bring up.”

Despite what the report laid out, councilwoman Clennon said pushing for the investigation was the right thing to do. She did not comment when asked if a firefighter “ran” to her or any other council member with a problem.

“I wouldn’t have changed what we did,” Clennon said.

The councilwoman said she agreed with Skelton that council should generally stay out of the fire department’s business. However, she said the situation with Wilson was different because he had a number of well-documented and alarming incidents over the course of nearly three decades in the department.

Clennon added that she felt nothing had ever been done regarding any of the allegations or concerns brought up over the years.

“When there’s a history … you get the sense that nobody was listening to anybody,” she said.

But Clennon said the investigation wasn’t solely about examining Wilson. Instead, she said it was about getting a fresh perspective on the bigger situation between the department and the station.

“It wasn’t that I was blaming one particular side or another,” the councilwoman said. “In my eyes, the main reason I pushed for (the investigation) was that I wanted an outside opinion.”

Wilson, who maintained throughout the process that he did not create an unfavorable work environment at the station, did not return a call for comment on this story.

Commander Brian Lovik, who filled in for Wilson until interim chief David Schliek took over Tuesday, deferred comment to city administration when asked about the report and about the current command structure within the department.

The full report can be found here.

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