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Wednesday, June 3, 2009 | In a Feb. 27 memo, Personnel Director Hadi Dehghani assured the city’s Civil Service Commission that his staff had rigorously examined the need for several new classes of employees, including a new rank of firefighter that would cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.

“To provide a solid basis for evaluating these requests, staff analysts visited work sites to gather data and observed the work performed and equipment used. They interviewed City employees, supervisors, department management and subject matter experts and as necessary conducted surveys of the labor market,” Dehghani wrote.

But documents provided in response to a voiceofsandiego.org California Public Records Act request show little evidence to support the Personnel Department’s confident recommendation to create at least one position, the new Firefighter III classification. They also revealed that Personnel Department staff did little research into whether the core claims being made by the Fire Department and Local 145 to justify the new position were actually true.

Personnel analysts held just one 45-minute meeting at the Fire-Rescue Department, with Assistant Fire Chief Javier Mainar, one of the key advocates for the new position. In contrast to Dehghani’s claims, the documents do not show that the Personnel Department observed work being performed, or equipment being used. The documents do not show that any subject matter experts were interviewed other than officials who had proposed the new position.

The only other meeting personnel analysts held was with the other group pushing for the creation of the new rank: Local 145, the union that represents city firefighters.

The documents show that the bulk of the 40 hours analysts say they spent looking into the new firefighter classification were spent gathering information from 24 other fire departments about what firefighting ranks they have and how much they pay their employees. But there’s no evidence to show why that information was collected, how it was analyzed or how it illustrates that the city needs a new firefighting classification.

The new rank has the potential to add an estimated $450,000 in increased salary costs to a budget that was strung together — in the midst of a budget crisis — largely on pay and benefit concessions wrung out of or thrust upon the city’s labor unions.

The creation of the new classification was proposed jointly in August 2008 by the Fire Department and Local 145. It was lobbied for fiercely by the union and was approved by the Civil Service Commission in March.

The Civil Service Commission, a group of five independent commissioners appointed by the mayor, must sign off on the creation of any new employment classification and is advised by the Personnel Department, which is tasked with researching whether the new classification is warranted. Delia H. Talamantez, the commission’s current president, said the Personnel Department’s recommendation is one of several tools the commission uses to make its decision.

Before the commission hearing, the Personnel Department produced a scant two-page report recommending the new rank. Dehghani said in April that the report merely represents a summary of weeks of research by analysts. He promised to produce evidence that his analysts had taken a long, hard look at whether the position was warranted, and voiceofsandiego.org requested any documents related to the department’s study of the new classification.

On Monday, the Personnel Department provided a stack of more than 500 documents including summaries of the work staff conducted and copies of all correspondence between analysts and Fire Department officials regarding the new classification.

During the March commission hearing, Mainar and Local 145 President Frank DeClercq, who were faced with skeptical questioning by the commissioners, referred to the Personnel Department’s report and recommendation as evidence that the position was needed. Both officials also testified to the necessity of the position. It was approved unanimously.

Fire Department and Local 145 officials have put forward three core arguments for creating the new position:

  • The city faces a backlog of fire inspections and the new rank will allow four-person fire crews to split into two crews that can conduct inspections. One of the two crews will be led by a captain, the other by a Firefighter III.
  • Firefighter IIIs are needed to serve as leaders in training and fire station drills.
  • The Fire Department faces a drastic shortage of firefighters who hold Class B commercial driving licenses, which qualify them to drive firefighting equipment. Firefighter IIIs would be required to hold class B licenses and would be available to drive equipment when needed.

On the first claim, the documents contained one e-mail from Mainar to a personnel analyst listing how many inspections were currently overdue.

But there’s no sign that the Personnel Department researched how else the department might catch up on its inspections other than creating the new rank.

Indeed, in one of the e-mails contained in the documents, a deputy fire chief suggested to Mainar that the department use firefighters on light duty to conduct inspections. There’s no indication that this or any other alternative was considered by the Personnel Department. (A Fire Department spokesman said the department has since started using light-duty personnel to conduct inspections, but that the department is still behind.)

As for the need to have Firefighter IIIs serve in a lead capacity on inspections and training, analysts provided little evidence to support the Personnel Department’s recommendation that the Fire Department needs a new layer of management.

As of April, the city had 253 firefighters who held the rank of captain or above. That’s more than one senior firefighter for every three of the city’s rank-and-file engineers and two firefighter levels.

Personnel Department staff surveyed 24 other fire departments in search of Firefighter IIIs, all but four of which are in California. Of the three departments surveyed that have Firefighter IIIs, two are a long way from California: Montgomery County in Maryland and Gwinnett County in Georgia.

Asked why analysts chose to survey a suburban county in Georgia and a county in urban Maryland out of the thousands of fire departments nationwide, Douglas Edwards, a Personnel Department supervisor, had a simple response: “Those are the departments the union told us had Firefighter IIIs.”

There’s no indication from the documents that Personnel Department staff ever analyzed the information they had gathered from the various departments or drew any conclusions from them. The recommendation the department eventually made to the Civil Service Commission contains no mention of the data the analysts collected.

On the last claim regarding commercial driving licenses, there’s no evidence in the documents that the analysts researched whether the department is actually short on firefighters with class B commercial licenses. The documents show that a personnel analyst asked Mainar by e-mail which vehicles the new rank of firefighters would be qualified to operate, but there’s no analysis of if or why the department needed to create a new classification to ensure the city has enough qualified drivers.

Of the 900 or so sworn firefighters at the department, more than one quarter are engineers — firefighters who are specifically tasked with driving and maintaining fire apparatus.

Dehghani refused to answer questions about his employees’ work.

“God himself couldn’t convince you that we properly researched this,” Dehghani said in response to a reporter’s questions.

Please contact Will Carless directly at will.carless@voiceofsandiego.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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