Northeast Times

The enemy within

Loc­al 22 Pres­id­ent Joe Schulle is fa­cing many chal­lenges, in­clud­ing an all-time low in mor­ale.   

  • The survey says: Joe Schulle discusses contract negotiations and other challenges he is currently facing as Local 22 president. A recent survey taken by firefighters and paramedics showed that department morale is low. MARIA POUCHNIKOVA / TIMES PHOTOS

  • The survey says: Joe Schulle discusses contract negotiations and other challenges he is currently facing as Local 22 president. A recent survey taken by firefighters and paramedics showed that department morale is low. MARIA POUCHNIKOVA / TIMES PHOTOS

  • A solid foundation: Local 22 is counting on community and political support for its agenda. MARIA POUCHNIKOVA / TIMES PHOTOS

As the new lead­er of the city’s fire­fight­ers and para­med­ics uni­on, Loc­al 22 Pres­id­ent Joe Schulle knows he’s go­ing to have many battles to fight on be­half of the uni­on’s 1,900 act­ive mem­bers and 2,100 re­tir­ees. 

For­ging a new labor con­tract, while col­lect­ing on a re­cently ex­pired one, are among the loom­ing chal­lenges, ac­cord­ing to Schulle, whose uni­on also has beefs re­gard­ing work shifts, trans­fers, hir­ing, pro­mo­tions, train­ing and dis­cip­line, among oth­ers.

Yet, all of those com­plaints may not add up to per­haps the greatest chal­lenge fa­cing the uni­on lead­er, ac­cord­ing to fire de­part­ment in­siders past and present. Schulle must also tackle the en­emy with­in: a pre­vail­ing ac­ri­mony and frus­tra­tion among Loc­al 22 mem­bers dir­ec­ted mainly at May­or Mi­chael Nut­ter and the fire de­part­ment lead­ers who serve at his prerog­at­ive. 

“In my time and since I left [the de­part­ment], I’ve nev­er seen mor­ale as low as it is now. And mor­ale is such an im­port­ant part of what they do,” said Ro­ger Ulshafer, whose four years as fire com­mis­sion­er from 1988 to ’92 con­cluded his 34-year ca­reer in the de­part­ment. “Re­la­tions between labor and man­age­ment couldn’t be worse.” 

“I can tell you, there’s a great num­ber of dis­gruntled in­di­vidu­als, primar­ily about the con­tract,” agreed Wil­li­am Rich­mond, who was fire com­mis­sion­er from 1984 to ’88 and served 28 years in the de­part­ment. 

A sur­vey of fire de­part­ment em­ploy­ees re­leased 19 months ago by Berkshire Ad­visors, a con­sult­ant com­mis­sioned by the Pennsylvania In­ter­gov­ern­ment­al Co­oper­a­tion Au­thor­ity to study man­age­ment and op­er­a­tions of the de­part­ment, spot­lighted the bad feel­ings. 

Berkshire asked about 2,200 uni­formed and nonuni­formed em­ploy­ees to as­sess dozens of hy­po­thet­ic­al state­ments about the de­part­ment. Par­ti­cipants were giv­en a choice of five re­sponses for each state­ment, ran­ging from “strongly agree” to “strongly dis­agree.” 

More than 1,800 em­ploy­ees re­spon­ded, of whom 81 per­cent were fire­fight­ers and 10 per­cent were para­med­ics. The res­ults poin­ted to an over­whelm­ing dis­sat­is­fac­tion with the de­part­ment’s seni­or lead­ers (spe­cific­ally Com­mis­sion­er Lloyd Ay­ers and his depu­ties), as well as the de­part­ment’s hir­ing, pro­mo­tion, dis­cip­line and trans­fer pro­cesses. 

Former May­or John F. Street first ap­poin­ted Ay­ers in Decem­ber 2004. Nut­ter has re­tained Ay­ers since tak­ing of­fice in Janu­ary 2008. 

While 85.2 per­cent of sur­vey-takers agreed or strongly agreed that they per­son­ally are “open to new ways of do­ing busi­ness,” 76.1 per­cent dis­agreed or strongly dis­agreed that the com­mis­sion­er and his depu­ties also are open to that meth­od. Al­most 82 per­cent in­dic­ated that em­ploy­ees “work ef­fect­ively to­geth­er” with­in their units, but al­most 54 per­cent in­dic­ated that the com­mis­sion­er and deputy com­mis­sion­ers do not. 

More than 89 per­cent in­dic­ated that they are “held ac­count­able for [their] per­form­ance,” while more than 52 per­cent dis­agreed or strongly dis­agreed that the com­mis­sion­er and his depu­ties are “held ac­count­able for the de­cisions they make.” 

Ay­ers did not re­spond to re­quests for com­ment for this art­icle. The com­mis­sion­er was among sev­en ad­min­is­tra­tion, fire de­part­ment and uni­on of­fi­cials who com­prised the Berkshire study’s steer­ing com­mit­tee. 

When asked to as­sess labor-man­age­ment in the de­part­ment dur­ing a Ju­ly 25 in­ter­view with the North­east Times, Schulle tried to be dip­lo­mat­ic. 

ldquo;I would cat­egor­ize it as a strained re­la­tion­ship. The con­tract is the ma­jor­ity of the prob­lem right now. [But] we have many chal­lenges. I don’t think hav­ing a con­tract would make a lot of these prob­lems go away.” 

Loc­al 22, a branch of the In­ter­na­tion­al As­so­ci­ation of Fire Fight­ers, con­duc­ted its own sur­vey this year with many ques­tions fo­cused on the uni­on’s more than 200 para­med­ics. Schulle got the res­ults in late Ju­ly. About half of para­med­ics took part. While with­hold­ing the full sur­vey res­ults, Schulle told the Times some key find­ings. 

The work sched­ule is a sore spot. Tra­di­tion­ally, med­ics and fire­fight­ers would ro­tate between day shifts and night shifts. But the de­part­ment re­cently turned all para­med­ic as­sign­ments in­to steady day or steady night shifts. 

Sev­enty-eight per­cent of night-shift para­med­ics said that the work sched­ule has heightened their feel­ings of de­pres­sion, while 92 per­cent said the sched­ule com­prom­ises their abil­ity to do their jobs. Also, more than 60 per­cent said that the night shift has hurt their re­la­tion­ships with their wives and chil­dren, while more than 90 per­cent said they don’t think their days off give them enough re­cov­ery time. 

“Your fam­ily life is harmed,” Schulle said of those as­signed to night work. “You don’t see your wife. You don’t see your kids. You don’t eat at home four or five days a week. The days you’re off from work, you can’t sleep at night.” 

Fire­fight­ers gen­er­ally are con­cerned that the de­part­ment will force them in­to a sim­il­ar sched­ule. 

“In re­cent his­tory, everything they do with the med­ics al­ways comes down to the fire­fight­ers,” Schulle said. 

That in­cludes an­oth­er per­son­nel man­age­ment policy, man­dat­ory trans­fers every few years. Com­monly known as “ro­ta­tions,” the policy gen­er­ally calls for para­med­ics to change com­pan­ies every three years and fire­fight­ers every five years. The policy is un­pop­u­lar be­cause it forces fire­fight­ers and med­ics to leave work en­vir­on­ments where they feel most com­fort­able and feel that they per­form at their best. 

“In the past, you could be as­signed to [the same] fire­house for most of your ca­reer,” Schulle said. “It’s like [be­ing in] a small group in the mil­it­ary. You know what the oth­er per­son is go­ing to do and you know what their cap­ab­il­it­ies are. … Ro­ta­tions are not done any­where else in the coun­try.” 

Among 111 para­med­ics who took part in the uni­on’s re­cent sur­vey, 108 in­dic­ated they don’t want the ro­ta­tion policy, ac­cord­ing to the uni­on lead­er. 

How this rank-and-file dis­sat­is­fac­tion mani­fests it­self in the fire de­part­ment’s level of ser­vice to the city re­mains a mat­ter of opin­ion. 

In cal­en­dar year 2012, the de­part­ment re­cor­ded 25 cit­izen fire fatal­it­ies in the city, the low­est total in his­tory and a re­duc­tion of sev­en from the pre­vi­ous year. The num­ber of cit­izens in­jured in fires re­mained about the same: 171 in 2012 after 173 in 2011. The fire de­part­ment re­spon­ded to 276,939 emer­gen­cies in 2012, a de­crease of 0.3 per­cent over the pre­vi­ous year, in­clud­ing 231,520 med­ic­al emer­gen­cies. 

However, the de­part­ment’s emer­gency med­ic­al re­sponse times were well be­low na­tion­al stand­ards and have got­ten worse in re­cent years, ac­cord­ing to City Coun­cil Pres­id­ent Dar­rell Clarke. 

Dur­ing Coun­cil’s an­nu­al budget hear­ings on April 24, Clarke stated that na­tion­al stand­ards call for EMS pro­viders to re­spond to calls with­in nine minutes 90 per­cent of the time. But dur­ing the fisc­al year end­ing June 30, 2012, the fire de­part­ment met the nine-minute stand­ard 68 per­cent of the time, a 6-per­cent de­crease from fisc­al 2008. The de­part­ment’s re­sponse times to fire-re­lated calls were not in­cluded in that ana­lys­is.

In re­sponse to Clarke’s ques­tion­ing in Coun­cil’s cham­bers, Ay­ers said that he is try­ing to ad­dress the prob­lem through ad­di­tion­al hir­ing and de­vel­op­ing a pri­or­ity dis­patch sys­tem that will dis­tin­guish non-emer­gency med­ic­al calls from true emer­gen­cies and re­duce the de­mand on para­med­ics. 

Fur­ther, re­sponse times for the de­part­ment’s roughly 45,000 an­nu­al fire emer­gen­cies have also ris­en. Ac­cord­ing to an Aug. 2, 2011, Phil­adelphia Daily News re­port, av­er­age fire en­gine-re­sponse times reached a 10-year high of 4 minutes, 53 seconds in 2010, and had in­creased to 5 minutes in the first half of 2011.

Schulle’s pre­de­cessor as Loc­al 22 pres­id­ent, Bill Gault, blamed the worsen­ing re­sponse times on the con­tro­ver­sial Brown Out Pro­gram, in which the de­part­ment shuts down se­lec­ted en­gine com­pan­ies on ro­tat­ing days for an an­nu­al sav­ings of $3.8 mil­lion to the city’s $3.8 bil­lion op­er­at­ing budget. Schulle thinks that brown outs aren’t worth the re­duc­tion in ser­vice. 

“Brown outs should be stopped. [The pro­gram] is a min­im­al cost-sav­ing policy,” said Schulle, who de­clined to spec­u­late on the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s jus­ti­fic­a­tion for it. “You’ll have to ask them that.” 

The Nut­ter ad­min­is­tra­tion did not re­spond to re­quests for com­ment on any of the is­sues men­tioned in this art­icle. 

Schulle said that he is will­ing to cri­ti­cize in­di­vidu­al policies openly, but he won’t com­ment on the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s pos­sible mo­tiv­a­tions be­cause he hopes to forge a less-con­ten­tious re­la­tion­ship with the may­or’s of­fice.

Gault had no such qualms. In four years as Loc­al 22 boss, he rarely hes­it­ated to ac­cuse Nut­ter of in­ject­ing polit­ics and per­son­al ven­det­tas in­to his hand­ling of fire de­part­ment is­sues, ran­ging from con­tract ne­go­ti­ations to the uni­on rep­res­ent­a­tion of para­med­ics. 

“I think it’s per­son­al with the may­or against Loc­al 22: the fire­fight­ers and the para­med­ics. It’s been go­ing on since Mi­chael Nut­ter took of­fice,” said Gault, who lost out to Schulle in a uni­on elec­tion earli­er this year and says he now sup­ports Schulle, who took of­fice on Ju­ly 1. 

Dur­ing Gault’s ten­ure, uni­on mem­bers re­peatedly gathered out­side City Hall with oth­ers in the or­gan­ized labor move­ment to protest the ad­min­is­tra­tion. In some in­stances, mem­bers car­ried signs de­pict­ing Nut­ter as a clown or in a jail cell — ref­er­en­cing the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s policy not to im­ple­ment raises and bet­ter uni­on be­ne­fits, des­pite ar­bit­ra­tion out­comes and court rul­ings fa­vor­able to the uni­on. 

Loc­al 22 mem­bers also helped shout down the may­or’s 2014 budget ad­dress at City Coun­cil in March, along with mem­bers of the city’s non-uni­form mu­ni­cip­al uni­ons, AF­SCME Dis­trict Coun­cils 33 and 47. 

At the fu­ner­al of Fire Capt. Mi­chael Good­win in April, fire­fight­ers ap­plauded en­thu­si­ast­ic­ally dur­ing the ser­vice at St. Mi­chael’s Luther­an Church after the Rev. Mar­jor­ie Neal called upon Nut­ter, who was sit­ting in a front pew, to give the fire­fight­ers raises and bet­ter be­ne­fits, something, she said, that Good­win had long wanted.

Re­la­tions between Gault’s Loc­al 22 and Nut­ter hit per­haps their low­est point in 2011 when the uni­on chose not to en­dorse the may­or’s re-elec­tion cam­paign. The uni­on in­stead backed long­shot former state Sen. and ex-con­vict Milton Street in the Demo­crat­ic primary. 

“Billy made a huge mis­take,” Ulshafer said of Gault, whom he con­siders a good friend. “He totally ali­en­ated the ad­min­is­tra­tion by back­ing Milton Street in­stead of Nut­ter.” 

At the time, the uni­on cited the con­tract dis­pute, as well as Nut­ter’s clos­ing of sev­en fire com­pan­ies in Janu­ary 2009, for shun­ning the in­cum­bent. Loc­al 22 re­cord­ing sec­ret­ary Mike Bresnan re­portedly told The Phil­adelphia In­quirer that Milton Street had prom­ised the uni­on to re­store the sev­en com­pan­ies and end the Brown Out Pro­gram, if elec­ted.

Nut­ter won the nom­in­a­tion in a land­slide. And Schulle won the Loc­al 22 pres­id­ency with an over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity of the votes from act­ive-duty mem­bers. Gault held an edge on re­tir­ees’ bal­lots. It wasn’t a total vic­tory for Schulle, however. His “tick­et” had chal­lenged for sev­en seats on the 10-mem­ber uni­on board, but won three. In­cum­bents re­tained the oth­er sev­en.

Mov­ing for­ward, the uni­on will fo­cus less on pub­lic protests and more on polit­ic­al and leg­al tac­tics to achieve its goals.

“[Demon­stra­tions] are really not my style,” Schulle said. “In the past, they have been suc­cess­ful in cer­tain situ­ations. [But] I think they’ve been done enough.”

The uni­on made per­haps its biggest tac­tic­al move un­der his lead­er­ship last month when it an­nounced an ef­fort to change the city charter to lim­it the abil­ity of the may­or to uni­lat­er­ally ap­peal fire­fight­er ar­bit­ra­tion awards. Lead­ing polit­ic­al fig­ures in the city have lined up be­hind Loc­al 22, in­clud­ing U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, City Con­trol­ler Alan Butkovitz, state Sen. Mike Stack, nu­mer­ous state law­makers and City Coun­cil mem­bers from both ma­jor polit­ic­al parties. The city’s lead­ing mu­ni­cip­al and build­ing trades uni­ons also back the plan, which would re­quire an af­firm­at­ive vote of City Coun­cil and a pub­lic ref­er­en­dum.

“Our part­ner­ships are dir­ectly re­lated to those con­cepts … polit­ics and the labor move­ment,” Schulle said.

In the mean­time, the uni­on is try­ing to take up the non­con­tract is­sues with the Nut­ter ad­min­is­tra­tion in­di­vidu­ally, but only the courts are likely to settle the con­tract dis­pute, ac­cord­ing to the uni­on pres­id­ent. The sides have been fight­ing for more than four years through mul­tiple rounds of ar­bit­ra­tion and ap­peals, primar­ily over wages and health-care be­ne­fits. Loc­al 22 mem­bers, who are pre­ven­ted by state law from go­ing on strike, last got a raise on Jan. 1, 2009, and have been work­ing es­sen­tially without a con­tract since Ju­ly 1 of that year. 

The city and uni­on two weeks ago began ar­bit­ra­tion on a new con­tract. The ad­min­is­tra­tion has pro­posed no raises and no in­creases in its health-care and pen­sion con­tri­bu­tions, ac­cord­ing to Schulle, which doesn’t sit well with fire­fight­ers and para­med­ics, past or present. 

“We gave up the right to strike years ago [in ex­change] for bind­ing ar­bit­ra­tion, now they’re chal­len­ging ar­bit­ra­tion, which is wrong. It’s totally wrong,” Rich­mond said.

In spite of the un­pre­ced­en­ted rift between Loc­al 22 and City Hall, there may be a sliv­er of hope for re­con­cili­ation when, or if, the con­tract is settled.

Gault thinks that can hap­pen only with a new ad­min­is­tra­tion. Nut­ter has 28 months re­main­ing in his second and fi­nal term as may­or.

“We will be really dis­trust­ful of [the ad­min­is­tra­tion]. We don’t feel the ad­min­is­tra­tion, the may­or, has our backs,” Gault said. “We live with it. We try to move on and fix things in the next con­tract ne­go­ti­ations.”

Ulshafer thinks ten­sions would sub­side with a new labor agree­ment.

“Fire­fight­ers, sure they’re angry how they’re be­ing treated. But will [a new con­tract] be a re­lief? Yeah, it will.”

Even without af­firm­a­tion from above, fire­fight­ers and para­med­ics can al­ways count on sup­port from the cit­izens they pro­tect and serve, Schulle be­lieves.

“I would say we’re still ap­pre­ci­ated by the com­munity,” he said. “And that’s what we’re count­ing on.” ••

You can reach at wkenny@bsmphilly.com.

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