Report highlights fire department’s strengths, weaknesses

Published 6:53 am Wednesday, April 7, 2010

By MIKE ROSE

mike.rose@austindailyherald.com

Whoever gets pegged as Austin’s next fire chief will likely be tasked with improving structure and training within the department.

That’s because a report from David Schliek, who in mid-March wrapped up a 30-day stint as the department’s interim chief, highlights those areas as two of several that could use improvement.

Schliek’s report, released by the city Tuesday, indicates that “cohesiveness of overall fire department operations is lacking.” Among the contributing factors to this situation, he wrote, is a disconnect between full-time and paid on-call firefighters, as well as a lack of a command structure behind the chief’s position.

In part because of this, firefighter training is also not very well organized, Schliek wrote. He noted that the department never fully trains together and that the skill levels of many of the paid on-call firefighters lag behind those of the career firefighters.

In these regards, the report is similar to a report issued by Margaret Skelton, the Minneapolis-based attorney who handled last year’s internal investigation into then-chief Dan Wilson, who retired in December. In that report, which was released by the city in February after the investigation was called off, Skelton noted that more structure within the department would help lessen the impact of personnel issues as they arose. She also called for improved training, saying that it would help create a more “professional” department.

However, Schliek did find time to praise several aspects of the department, nothing that communication between firefighters from shift-to-shift is very good, fire education and prevention is well emphasized in the community, and firefighters exhibit a great deal of pride in their work.

Ultimately, the report will be a piece of the puzzle as City Council moves forward in selecting a new chief. Currently, there are three finalists for the position — Edward Schwaesdall, Michael Healey and Jarrod Wellik, none of whom are from Austin — and local police are doing background checks on each. When those checks are completed within the next few weeks, the council’s fire committee will begin interviewing the candidates.

Councilman Steve King, a fire committee member, said the committee will likely not show the candidates Schliek’s full report because the committee doesn’t want to over-influence responses. However, King said questions for the candidates could very well be drawn from observations in the report. He also said whoever is hired is likely to get a copy of the report as background.

City administrator Jim Hurm said he likes this idea, but he also wants to make sure the new fire chief is given some deal of independence, which was among Skelton’s main recommendations. Hurm said it is good to provide information like Schliek’s report, though he noted it is best to leave it up to the new chief to decide how to incorporate the information.

“I don’t know that the fire department is any different from other city departments,” Hurm said, adding that department heads are typically left to set goals and handle day-to-day operations.

However, firefighter Chris Grunewald, who is the president of the local firefighters’ union, said council still needs to set some goals for the department — something that has been lacking in recent years, he said.

“We need direction,” Grunewald said. “Ultimately, then we have some idea as to where we’re going.”

Grunewald said Schliek’s report is a good starting point, and the firefighter added that everything he saw in the report was fairly accurate, including the critiques of structure and training.

“Oh, yeah, I completely agree with that,” he said. “That is something we’ve been arguing for, even in our contract negotiations.”

Grunewald said some firefighters — himself included — were skeptical about bringing in an interim chief for 30 days. However, he said the report highlights a lot of important issues, and he’s glad it’s at the city’s disposal.

But more important, Grunewald said, is that the city listens to the main themes in Schliek’s report, and uses them to hire a strong leader and to form future fire department policy.

“I think they can get some great ideas,” Grunewald said.