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Review criticizes firefighter leadership

Clearwater's Fire Department lacks training, discipline, cooperation and effective command structure and needs sweeping _ and expensive _ organizational changes, according to a scathing management review of the department.

The independent audit, ordered by the city last year and released this week, outlines two options for restructuring, one with a $232,562 annual price tag and the other rising to $619,141. The report follows the fatal high rise fire at Dolphin Cove condominiums that killed two elderly residents and seriously injured three firefighters in June 2002.

The draft report, which cost $48,420 and took three months, comes on the heels of a critical examination of Dolphin Cove by the United States Fire Administration and a review by the St. Petersburg Times that found firefighters violated department guidelines and failed to follow basic tactical procedures.

The report, prepared by Tallahassee-based consultant MGT of America, criticized department leadership, particularly for being slow to respond to major fires and for poor management at those scenes. And training in a host of areas, from fire safety to high-rise procedures to large-scale incident management, also was found to be lacking.

Drills, the report found, are not automatically monitored by a senior fire officer. And top fire administrators should have a background in firefighting, which the current chief does not.

The report concludes that coastal Clearwater's emergency management functions are potentially ineffective and should be removed from the fire department altogether. "Currently, disaster management planning does not appear to enjoy a high priority in the city of Clearwater," the report says, before suggesting the functions be transferred for supervision by the assistant city manager.

Meanwhile, the report says the department's staffing level is adequate, a finding union leaders dispute.

On Friday, Chief Rowland Herald, at odds with the union for months over the direction of the department and nasty contract negotiations, also criticized the report, but for different reasons.

Herald contests the consultant's claim that the department averaged one fire fatality a month between May and September last year, and that during the same period the city averaged three structure fires a month. City officials said there were three deaths, not five, and the number of fires averaged between 10 and 11 each month.

Those differences, Herald said, could be enough to substantially change the results of the report.

"If they're drawing conclusions on errors of fact on how we operate, then perhaps their recommendations will be amended," he said. "I want to make sure that they're drawing conclusions based on the best information available."

Jim Carino, vice president of Clearwater Firefighters Local No. 1158, scoffed at any conclusion that the department is well-staffed. Saying the department has just one more firefighter now than it did 20 years ago, Carino said increased call volumes have stretched firefighters too thin.

"It's like making a whole bunch of sandwiches but only having a tablespoon of mayonnaise," he said. "Sooner or later you don't taste the mayonnaise."

City officials downplayed the recommendations Friday, saying their staff will review the report after it is finalized next month, then decide how to proceed.

"I don't get shocked anymore about anything," said City Manager Bill Horne.

Horne, who asked for the review as a tool to help remake the embattled department, said he suffered sticker shock at the cost of the proposed changes. Nonetheless, he wanted an honest look at the organization. Horne said he expects to make more personnel changes, but declined to reveal a timetable or identify individuals.

"What I'm not going to do is just run out and fire people," he said. "Change occurs over time."

On Friday, Mayor Brian Aungst said he was not surprised by some of the report's findings and pledged to push for reform, especially with labor-management relations.

"I think we really need to tighten the reins," he said. "The department's almost running itself backwards. That's absolutely got to be corrected."

Carino, the union vice president, said he hopes this report, unlike others he has seen in the past, sparks meaningful change.

"I have true, true concerns," he said. "When's it going to stop? At some point we need to do something."

_ Jennifer Farrell can be reached at 445-4160 or farrellsptimes.com.

Major findings of the audit

Here are the major findings of an audit of the Clearwater Fire Department conducted by consultant MGT of America:

Criticisms

Not enough senior managers, who are now too slow to respond to major fires.

Insufficient training for firefighters and supervisors.

Department climate is marked by conflict, poor communications, public disagreements and lack of trust, confidence, discipline and cooperation.

Instability and turnover in management positions.

Recommendations:

Reorganize the department into three divisions, each headed by a deputy chief.

Remove disaster management planning from the fire department, reassign it to assistant city manager.

Beef up training and career development.

Require both fire and emergency medical experience for top management.

Source: MGT of America

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