TAMPA — If the study is to be believed, long-held concerns about growing animosity between Hillsborough County Fire Rescue employees, their management and union staff is overblown.
"They like their station and crew mates. They think the equipment and apparatus provided by the department is terrific. They also think that the chief has done the job the chief was brought in to do," Deputy County Administrator Greg Horwedel told county commissioners last week while outlining the preliminary findings.
Union representatives in the audience scoffed at the rosy assessment.
“Greg went up there to sugarcoat this report. That’s what this is all about,’’ Derrick Ryan, president of the firefighters’ Union Local 2294, said after the meeting. “We have a serious morale issue at fire rescue. Now they can hide all they want about it, but we really need to sit at the table and find some solutions.’’
Hillsborough administrators ordered the ongoing “organizational analysis” after a union survey last year showed widespread discontent in the ranks. The county hired psychologist Michael Mian and his Mian Talent Solutions to do the assessment at a cost to taxpayers of $186,000.
Mian began the process by sending out 700 surveys to Fire Rescue employees about the culture within the department. Horwedel said he has spent the past few months conducting about 250 in-person interviews.
So far, Horwedel said, "a majority of people indicated that they loved their job."
But there were also plenty of problems, he told the board.
Only about 59 percent of the 737 employees who responded to Mian's survey and interview requests reported feeling engaged in their work. Only 9 percent felt that their work group had the resources it needed to effectively serve the community and just 14 percent felt that a good system was in place for employees to communicate their concerns and ideas up the chain of command.
About three-quarters of the respondents said the department could take more proactive steps to protect employees physical, mental and emotional health. Sixty percent said county administration didn't offer the department enough public support.
And only 15 percent said they felt confident that the issues identified by the organizational analysis would be acted on by county and department officials.
"The findings are, you know, they are fairly standard for what we see in other fire departments so this is not unusual, some of the conflict that we have seen," Mian told the commission. "But we believe we have some recommendations on how to bring the parties together and how to address some of the work environment issues that were indicated."
In fact, Mian's analysis closely resembled the findings of the department-wide "morale study" that the firefighters' union commissioned last August.
The union study said four out of 10 members currently employed at Fire Rescue would leave their jobs if they had an offer with similar pay and benefits. County administrators largely dismissed the negative results, calling them a bargaining tool for use during contentious contract negotiations.
"The contract had nothing to do with our survey or their survey," Ryan said. "The contract is put to bed and we still have morale issues at Fire Rescue."
Nearly every employee who worked with Mian's team reported that the county's booming population growth has created "significant workload issues" for first responders, said union spokesman Travis Horn. And providing Fire Rescue with the resources needed to field its current call volume has been a constant theme during the commission's ongoing planning talks for next year's budget.
That’s one reason why the $186,000 price tag for the county study is so egregious, Horn said.
"We could have hired four or five new firefighters for the money that they wasted just to get almost the exact same results that we got with our study," he said.
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Morale issues have percolated behind the scenes at Fire Rescue since at least 2015, when Hillsborough County administrator Mike Merrill replaced his long-time fire chief with former Tampa Fire Chief Dennis Jones.
"We never had a bad relationship with Fire Rescue management, nor with the county management, until we hired this fire chief," Ryan said. "I think all relationships are salvageable but I don't see any steps on their side to salvage it."
A number of high-profile disciplinary actions have happened under Jones' watch.
In 2018, a Tampa Bay Times investigation found that Fire Rescue employees had been involved in 47 drug- and alcohol-related incidents since 2010. About 20 employees failed a drug test or were arrested for drunken driving, while other employees were accused of stealing or tampering with drugs on an ambulance or drugs owned by patients they were called to help.
In 2016, an off–duty fire medic died of a drug overdose, and another overdosed while at work.
Last year also saw a number of Fire Rescue employees fired or suspended for their involvement with the Outlaws Motorcycle Club under a series of county ordinances that prohibit membership in any organization the state or federal government considers criminal.
In August, arbitrators will hear the union's arguments for overturning the county's decision to fire one paramedic and suspend three others for failing to take the vital signs of a stroke victim who later died, Merrill said. At least two other cases remain pending, one involving a fire lieutenant who was arrested for marijuana possession and another involving a captain who intentionally delayed responding to a 911 call until Sheriff's deputies arrived because he believed the neighborhood was unsafe for his crew.
Horwedel told commissioners that Mian's team hopes to present their recommendations to the board in 30 to 60 days. They plan to meet first with union representatives and convene a steering committee of employees from Fire Rescue, Human resources and county administration to develop next steps.
"All I can say is my calendar is open and I have yet to receive an email about it," Ryan said.
Contact Anastasia Dawson at [email protected] or (813) 226-3377. Follow @adawsonwrites.