Morale, budget, work force demand change in fire division

Morale, budget, work force demand change

March 6, 2011 

One safeguard against a workplace becoming hostile to women and minorities is to have women and minorities in the workplace, including in management.

It's not surprising, then, that Lexington is investigating allegations of sexual harassment in its Division of Fire and Emergency Services.

Judging from the class of recruits that just graduated — 25 white males — work force diversity either has not been a priority, or the division's management has failed at achieving it.

During the past five years, the fire academy has graduated 119 firefighters. Of the 119, five were black men, four were white women and none were black women.

Of the division's 525 sworn firefighters, 31 are black men and 12 are white women. Again, none are black women — which seems especially wrong considering the heroism of Lexington's first black woman firefighter, Lt. Brenda Cowan. She was shot to death in the line of duty in 2004 trying to rescue a domestic violence victim who also died.

We understand that fighting fires and running ambulances are dangerous, physically demanding jobs, traditionally dominated by white men and sometimes handed down from father to son.

But lots of formerly white-male institutions (think U.S. Army) have diversified their ranks and are better for it.

Former mayor Jim Newberry told the Herald-Leader his administration brought in an outsider to investigate the sexual harassment claims because of the breadth of the allegations which he said were complicated and involved a lot of people.

The council was told last week the investigation is nearly complete. But that's far from the only problem facing the next chief, whoever that may be.

With the council's unanimous support, Mayor Jim Gray is in the process of removing Chief Robert Hendricks. The concerns about Hendricks' leadership include employee morale and management of the division's budget, especially overtime.

Gray, who promised a "fresh start" as a candidate, was busy delivering last week: He was involved in replacing the leadership of both the health department and fire/emergency services.

The city will also soon begin contract negotiations with the fire and police unions. This will be the third contract since the legislature imposed police and fire collective bargaining on Lexington in 2004.

The council last week heard that overtime costs for fire/emergency services will go over budget this fiscal year, perhaps by as much as $400,000, as city government struggles with an expected $11 million shortfall.

The council also learned about a contract provision that escalates overtime costs by allowing firefighters to take off unlimited compensatory time and take vacation with little notice. The council was told the soaring overtime has forced deep cuts in training for firefighters and EMTs.

The next chief and the city's firefighters need a workable contract if they are to succeed in providing Lexington the best protection possible.

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