It is ironic that in the world of first responders, which are more para-military in structure and thus a command and control environment, that there is an acute feeling that control is being lost.

It is not because the leadership is necessarily the problem, but it is the power of the union in a monopolistic service coupled with the presence of unfettered interest arbitration that so often leaves fire chiefs with a feeling of well-founded helplessness.

This unfortunate reality will not change in the near future.  Constant budget pressures, where payroll dollars represent 85% of the total costs leave little room for maneuver.  Fire Chiefs are told to do more with less by the Municipality.  Nevertheless, the daily tug-of-war of labour relations often consumes even further funds through the costly rights arbitration process.  It’s difficult trying to improve performance of the workforce when dealing with performance issues through an arbitration resolution scenario.

This scene is playing out repeatedly throughout North America in fire departments and police departments.

Although not perfect, there may be one way to regain a measure of control.  It requires divorcing employee relations from industrial relations.  It means respecting the right of union members to have union representation when there are violations of the collective agreement; but, it also means that employees can be engaged in a manner that causes them to think in terms of loyalty to the department before loyalty to the association.

In other words, Fire Chiefs need to win the support of their employees rather than demand the support so often found in a para-military environment.  This can start by asking them their opinions in a non-threatening manner – preferably not at bargaining time.  Employee satisfaction surveys provide a vehicle to deliver on this objective.  Let me give one real example from surveys conducted.  Two questions which scored as excellent opportunities to repair were:

  1. “My job does not cause stress or anxiety in my life.”
  2. “I do not feel frequent stress in my job.”

In each case there was a split of about 50% in either “Agree” or “Disagree”.  When you review the comments, where we would have expected the stress to be related to the actual job of the first responder, the comments painted a different picture.  There was stress related to organization change; and contest between union and non-union employees – and, in one case reference to a toxic environment.

Addressing these issues do not require an outlay of more dollars!  Instead improved efforts at communication with the front line workers, as well as reviewing how employees are spoken to could help resolve the issue.  Further, annual surveying will reveal the impacts of any change initiatives that are undertaken.

Surveying will deliver clues, and as the collective thoughts of employees and volunteers are gathered – new strategies that focus thinking toward the Department can be developed.

It is unlikely that interest arbitration will be expunged from the process; but, a renewed campaign to gain the support of the employees will undoubtedly improve relations at bargaining time, and put some control back in the hands of Fire Chiefs.

By: John Platz, President HR/IR Satellite Inc.