11/12/08 — City says fire department concerns addressed

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City says fire department concerns addressed

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on November 12, 2008 1:46 PM

Faced with an audit report describing the Goldsboro Fire Department as "in a state of disarray and chaos," City Manager Joe Huffman said Monday that ever since receiving the report nearly a month ago, the city has been working to address the 45 pages of concerns and recommendations.

He explained that on Oct. 22 -- the report was submitted on Oct. 15 -- he sat down the fire department's leadership team and handed them "some action steps" to begin work on.

Then, on Oct. 29, Fire Chief Alvin Ward left the city's service -- Huffman has not specified whether he resigned or was fired -- and Assistant Chief Gary Whaley was made interim chief.

Since then, Whaley said, the department has continued to work to fix its problems.

"The command staff at the fire department is working together as a team to see that these things are dealt with," he said. "We are meeting one or two times a week in work sessions until we can get to the point things are progressing along normally, and we are meeting with the city manager every other week.

"The command staff is working very diligently and as quickly as we possibly can on these issues -- some just take a little more time than others."

Among the top priorities from the report were providing more portable radios and ending the practice of firefighters riding in the open cabs of fire trucks, both of which were actually addressed, Huffman said, before the audit report was finished.

To make sure that each firefighter had a portable radio while on shift, 10 additional used units were purchased from Cumberland County at a cost of $2,800 -- enough to bridge the gap until Wayne County begins bringing its new system online next year -- and to keep people from riding in the open cabs, the city instituted a chase vehicle policy.

Other recommendations the department has followed include:

* Changes to the department's General Order 25, which deals with the promotional process, and which Whaley expects to be done by Wednesday. Other general orders, Whaley explained, also are in the revision process and will likely be finished next week.

* The assignment of the two newly promoted fire captains to their positions.

* The decision to not hire anyone not passing the "CPAT" physical agility test.

* The decision to no longer reduce salaries while requiring employees to work as part of a disciplinary measure.

* The formation of a committee to begin putting together information on the replacement of the 1990 and 1991 Pierce engines. Whaley explained that such replacements could cost about $400,000 each, while Huffman added that any such move would likely have to be financed during the next fiscal year.

* The purchase and phasing in of $27,000 inf new National Fire Protection Association compliant station-wear uniforms -- those that Whaley said the firefighters wear around the station and under their turn-out gear.

* The repair and replacement of such items as the speedometer cable and sensor on Engine 1, a new seat for Engine 6, lights on Engine 3, the air pump on Engine 2, and other various valves and annual maintenance work -- about $50,000 worth.

"(Repairs and maintenance) had fallen way behind," Whaley said. "I don't know why, and when you fall behind so far it's hard to get things back to where they need to be. But everything that can be fixed has been fixed."

And, he said, city officials have also taken steps to address the staffing shortages facing the department.

"One of the biggest things we've been able to do is the shift and staff re-assignments and put the high-angle and trench rescue teams back together," he said.

He explained that the teams were pulled apart during Ward's last re-assignment about a year ago.

"That was one of the things Chief Ward had done," Whaley said. "I don't know why he did it. It was just a result of the shift changes."

But by re-assigning personnel so those teams are now all operating out of the same stations again, he explained that it allows them "function more efficiently and effectively."

Also helping to improve the staffing situation is the fact that 10 new firefighters have been hired.

It was a process, Huffman explained, that began in December 2007. Of those who were hired, seven were employed by Ward, with four just now preparing to go on shift.

"I think the process that was used was too long to meet the needs of the department," Huffman said, adding that among the changes to the general orders are ones to make sure future hiring processes don't take longer than three months.

In the meantime, Whaley added, the city has also authorized assistant chiefs to make use of overtime to ensure that all companies operate with at least three personnel at all times.

Among the concerns that have not been addressed yet, however, are the condition of the fire stations, the furniture in the fire stations and the need for vehicle exhaust systems in the fire stations, and the need for a fire training center -- although Huffman said he has broached that subject with Wayne Community College President Dr. Kay Albertson

Those kind of non-critical items, Whaley explained, will just have to wait.

"The life/safety needs are the top priority, and the general orders give us some framework of how to operate," he said. "We've been moving as hard we can on these things. A lot of them are budget-related."

Most important, however, they agreed is the fact that department's mood and morale are improving.

"This whole ordeal with the audit has hit us hard, but the people at Goldsboro Fire Department are very dedicated people. They are answering their calls and handling their emergencies. I think morale has improved substantially," Whaley said. "What I'm trying to do, and the command staff, is be informative and open to the entire fire department, and let them know what is going on. People need to feel a part of something. The command team makes every effort to keep people informed about the changes taking place."

That means, he continued, meeting with each shift, going over information with them, and including as many on long-term and short-term committees as possible.

"I think people feel that they can voice their opinions and their concerns more openly, and they're seeing progress in a positive way," he said. "And that has improved morale in a tremendous way."

And, Huffman said, that sort of improvement in communication also is taking place at the top -- between the command team and his office.

"I think communication is the key, and I'm focused on having quality communication with the fire department," he said, which means continuing the every-other-week meetings for as long as necessary.

"We've got a whole lot of issues to deal with," Huffman said. "There have been some issues the last couple of years. There are some issues in the audit that can't be ignored. But we have an opportunity now to make it better than it's ever been, and now's the time to do that."

And, he added, if that also means taking their time to name a new permanent chief, then that's all right with him.

"I want to make sure we go through a logical, thought-out process," he said. "I've got a lot of confidence in Chief Whaley and his leadership team, and I think we can afford to move slowly on that. I think we're in good shape."