Firefighters and Fire Chiefs Work Together to Change the Fire Service in Colorado
By Susan M. Thornton
There was a time in Colorado when fire chiefs and firefighters didn’t work together very well in dealing with the details of operating their fire and emergency medical services organizations. Even when they were on the same side of an issue, mistrust and dissention often led to disagreement and challenges with each other.
That was then. Fortunately, this is now, and now is very different, according to Mike Rogers, President of Colorado Professional Fire Fighters (CPFF).
Denver Experience Shaped Rogers’ Thinking
Rogers was the former head of the Denver Firefighters’ union when, in 2003, the union was faced with a dilemma. The City of Denver had a serious budget crunch and could not pay its firefighters their expected raises. Rogers says union members took the long view and voted to forgo expected raises “to keep firefighters on duty and the trucks running.” That decision was a game-changer for the firefighter union’s relations with city leadership.
When the economy recovered, the city “re-paid” the firefighters by providing raises higher than might have otherwise been expected. The concessions made by the firefighters and the subsequent pay-back by the city developed good will between the two entities, Rogers says, and led to an on-going “good working relationship and trust.”
It also showed Rogers the value of cooperating instead of working from a place of constant conflict.
Epiphany Forged Briese’s Focus on Cooperation
At about the same time Garry Briese, now Executive Director of the Colorado State Fire Chiefs (CSFC), was the Executive Director for the International Association of Fire Chiefs. “Labor and management were in conflict in many fire departments across the nation,” Briese says. “We were like trains on two parallel tracks, generally going to the same destination but not communicating with each other.”
Briese was speaking at a meeting of the Massachusetts State Fire Chiefs on the challenges fac- ing the future of the fire service when he had an epiphany. “I realized there were no firefighter labor leaders in the audience,” he says. “Just chiefs. Only one group of fire service leaders was hearing the message.”
Many fire chiefs’ leadership style at the time was autocratic, quasi-military, and outdated he says, a paternalistic, top-down, do-it-because- I-say-so approach. Firefighters, like many other public and private sector employees, wanted more respect and more involvement in the dis- cussions and decisions about their futures and their careers.
After the presentation to the State Fire Chiefs in Massachusetts, Briese says he was asked to speak to a group of county-level re chiefs. He agreed – but added a condition that each chief would bring his or her labor president. Briese also speci ed that a two-day presentation would be followed six months later by another such presentation. After some hesitation, the county chiefs agreed.
“Both chiefs and labor presidents were very distrustful at first,” Briese says. “The chiefs did ask their labor presidents to that first meeting—but each participant arrived in a separate car.”
At the meeting, Briese focused on issues valued by both labor and management, including health, safety, and wellness. Eventually other chiefs and labor leaders came to see the value of talking with each other and of cooperation, and slowly relationships began to improve nationally.
And incidentally, most of those county chiefs and their labor presidents drove together to the second meeting.
Cooperation in Colorado
In 2013, Senate Bill 13-25 passed the Colorado Legislature and was signed into law by Gover- nor Hickenlooper. Senate Bill 13-25 states that in any district having two or more paid firefighters, unless the Board approves a collective bargaining process, a collective bargaining process can be mandated on the district pursuant to a detailed process.
In the fall of 2013, Rogers and Briese met with West Metro Fire Chief Don Lombardi and Mike Mor-gan, then the Chief of Colorado River Fire Rescue and CSFC President, to open the door to increasing communications on issues of mutual importance. “While the passage of Senate Bill 13-25 in 2013 provided a local structure for fire service labor management relations, the two state organizations—CPFF and CSFC—agreed that we needed to set an example and cooperate where we could, and we started work to find those issues,” Rogers says.
CSFC and CPFF established two guiding principles of their new relationship:
» Labor and management share mutual goals of ensuring the well-being and safety of Fire/ EMS personnel and of providing high quality service to the public.
» Labor and management will work together to improve communications, enhance training, increase participative decision-making, and promote a labor-management partnership based on mutual trust, respect, and understanding.
Successful Cardiac Legislation Demonstrates that
“While the passage of Senate Bill 13-25 in 2013 provided a local structure for fire service labor management relations, the two state organizations—CPFF and CSFC—agreed that we needed to set an example and cooperate where we could, and we started work to find those issues.” —MikeRogers
12 SPECIAL DISTRICT ASSOCIATION OF COLORADO | 303.863.1733 | JUNE 2016
“Today, cooperation between labor and management is not something that we do in monthly meetings, it is how we think about every aspect of how fire departments organize and operate.”
Firefighters face a host of health risks from their stressful jobs and from toxic fumes they breathewhen ghting res. Both heart problems and cancer rates in firefighters are elevated above the rates for the same diseases in the civilian population, Rogers notes. As a result, cardiac related health events were a logical starting-point for labor and management to work together in the legislature.
The first major victory that resulted from the new spirit of cooperation came in 2014, when the CPFF, the CSFC, SDA, and the Colorado Special Districts Property and Liability Pool (CSD Pool) came together to lobby the legislature to pass landmark cardiac legislation creating a trust for cardiac events.
The law requires that any governmental entity employing professional firefighters must provide insurance coverage in a trust for those who develop heart issues. This provides a product for firefighters suffering from cardiac issues within 48 hours of a work event. The employers are required to keep the firefighters on as employees and cover their expenses for treatment when serious heart issues arise. The State reimburses employers for some of the expenses of the premium for providing insurance and treatment.
Briese says that SDA, the CSD Pool, CSFC, and CPFF worked together very well, “We did it co- operatively, and it was a huge win for everyone,” Briese says.
The CPFF, CSFC, SDA, the CSD Pool, and the Colorado Municipal League are now working on innovative legislation to bring similar protection to firefighters who develop cancer. Rogers and Briese say they hope such legislation will be passed in the 2017 General Assembly.
CPFF and CSFC are also working on developing a statewide mutual aid system for wild fires and are working together with the CSFC Volunteer and Combination Sections on developing a basic firefighter training program for smaller re departments.
Cooperation is “The Way We Think”
Rogers says, “Today, cooperation between labor and management is not something that we do in monthly meetings, it is how we think about every aspect of how fire departments organize and operate.” Briese agrees, and continues to see progress to embrace the concepts of strong collaborative labor-management relations in large, medium, and small fire departments across Colorado.
Inter-organizational communications has become the norm. For instance, CPFF presents at the CSFC conference each year and visa-versa; the Denver area Metro Fire Chiefs meet six times a year, and labor representatives now attend and provide updates. The question between fire service leadership and labor leaders has changed from “Why are they here?” to “Why aren’t they here?”
In addition, Briese and Rogers frequently make presentations together, including several times at SDA Annual Conferences talking about the “new way” of leading organizations. When requested, they have also gone out to fire departments where there are internal problems between labor and management. “We sit down with them, we listen, and then we work with them to teach how labor and management should be working together,” Rogers says.
“It’s a new, exciting and challenging way to think about the future of our fire departments. It really is better for everyone—the firefighters, the fire chiefs, the fire departments, and especially for our communities, the taxpayers, and the citizens we serve,” Rogers says.