The Kalispell Fire Department suffers from low morale, high turnover, distrust in leadership, poor communication between senior officials and line firefighters, and a lack of focus regarding training, according to several former and current firefighters within the department.
But Fire Chief Randy Brodehl said he is guiding his young squad through a period of intense growth, and points to his record of boosting the number of firefighters serving Kalispell under his leadership, positive community reviews and improved ratings by national insurance assessments.
An Oct. 16 dispute between the local firefighters union and city officials over whether union property could be stored at the downtown firehouse resulted in firefighters removing – in addition to union records – many of the amenities kept around the station. While the city and union reached a partial agreement by the end of the week, allowing firefighters to return items including cans of coffee, refrigerators and mattresses, firefighters interviewed said the dispute was the first outward sign of problems that have plagued the department for several years.
David Telfer left the Kalispell fire department in September 2006 after working there a year. Telfer, currently a firefighter in Oregon, said he left partly because of the advancement opportunities that a bigger department offered, but also because the environment at the Kalispell fire department was oppressive.
“Our morale is terrible,” he said. “People don’t like going to work.”
Roger Phillips, who served 21 years on the Kalispell fire department and retired in November 2006 as a captain, echoed Telfer. “There’s no morale,” Phillips said. “There is no morale anymore.”
Firefighters criticized the department’s training regimen, saying it focuses too heavily on accruing a certain number of hours every month, regardless of the value of the training exercises.
“Training is a very integral part of this job and it seemed like, there, it wasn’t done enough,” Telfer said. “It always felt like they were pushing for quantity over quality.”
Firefighters also described e-mails from chiefs explaining new directives or policies that were often unclear and inconsistent. “When orders were given via e-mail, they were very vague,” Telfer said. “You didn’t feel like they were very cut and dry.”
Current Kalispell firefighters interviewed for this story asked not to be identified to avoid complicating upcoming mediation and negotiations between union and city officials, set to begin in January over the next labor contract, which expires June 2008. But all agreed with former Kalispell firefighters that high turnover under Brodehl’s tenure has led to a decrease in professional experience in the ranks, and that little trust exists between line firefighters and department leadership.
Byron Guy, who retired after 20 years on the Kalispell Fire Department in September 2006, said throughout much of his career, firefighters left the department or retired at a rate of about one every five or six years. Under the roughly seven years of Brodehl’s leadership, more than 20 firefighters have left, either retiring or taking other jobs. Many firefighters interviewed said they were currently searching for work elsewhere, or knew of several co-workers who were.
“There’s a lot of good talent that’s been lost,” Guy said.
“We’re constantly changing out people, constantly losing people,” Guy added. “I know that the issues have a lot to do with our chief.”
Because the Kalispell firefighters’ union has filed a formal grievance against the city, Brodehl said he could not comment on the Oct. 16 dispute over city property in the firehouse, saying only that the city is “committed to following the collective bargaining process.”
As for questions of low morale at the department, Brodehl said he was focused mainly on ensuring the department does the best job possible.
“I can’t speak to the people’s morale,” he said. “We, as individuals, are responsible for whether we are happy or not.”
Brodehl then pointed to the fire department’s mission statement, hanging over the door to his office, which describes the department’s responsibility to respond to nearly every kind of emergency within the city and surrounding area.
“Everyone of us are committed to following that,” Brodehl said. “It is the basis of what we do.”
Brodehl explained that Kalispell, and the fire department, has grown rapidly under his leadership. When he began in 2001, he had a staff of 21; today, his staff numbers 39. In the last six years, 11 firefighters reached retirement age after working 20 years, and decided to take it. Brodehl acknowledges that most of his firefighters are young, college-educated and talented.
“This is a young person’s job; it’s tough,” he said. “It takes a toll on your body.”
But he conceded that the flipside of having young firefighters is that many lack the experience of firefighters who have served for 10 to 15 years.
“I’m extremely proud of our firefighters,” he said. “We can put our firefighters up against any firefighters in the U.S. and be very successful in comparison to how we do our job and how they do their job.”
The Kalispell fire department doesn’t face a lot of fires, Brodehl said, so it’s not unusual that young, ambitious firefighters might leave for a job with a bigger department that’s busier, pays more, and offers more opportunities for advancement.
As for criticism over training, Brodehl conceded that it is something he is working hard to improve.
“One of the things we have struggled with since I’ve been here is consistency in training,” he said, “because we just didn’t have the leadership to complement that.”
Brodehl designated a chief for training, Tim Soule, in July of 2006 to remedy the problem.
Cory Horsens, a current Kalispell firefighter and president of the International Association of Firefighters (IAFF), Local 547, said the union is bringing in an intermediary to “identify and correct the issues” at the department.
“I will agree with the union’s position that there is a morale problem and we are doing everything in our power to fix it,” Horsens said. “We’re very committed to improving morale, which we believe is linked to retention.”
Horsens said Ricky Walsh, vice president for the IAFF’s seventh district, is likely to travel to Kalispell sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas to help identify and find solutions to problems at the fire department.
Walsh served with Brodehl in the past, and said he considers him a friend, but added, “When they call me, that means things are slipping out of control.”
Brodehl said he, too, intends to help solve any problems that may exist at the Kalispell fire department.
“The buck does stop here,” Brodehl said, “and when there are issues out there I am committed to working through them.”
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