“We don’t manipulate the system, we believe in seniority and we believe in experience because with experience comes confidence.”
— Wade Ritchie, Brandon Professional Firefighters/Paramedics Association president
Among the more interesting points that arose out of the recent arbitration hearing between the firefighter/paramedics union and the City of Brandon — not counting the salary dispute — was a proposal by the city to change the way job promotions are handled within the fire department.
For years, the department has based promotions on what is called a “lockstep” policy. This process — which is based on seniority, not ability — was built into the previous collective bargaining agreement, and required the city to follow a lockstep process when hiring officers in the department.
In its proposal, the city claims that the union manipulates the hiring system by only putting one member forward when a position comes up.
“If it was open and clear for all employees to apply that are qualified, then at least we’d have a fair competition and the best candidate for the job would be chosen,” city manager Scott Hildebrand said on Thursday.
In case readers missed it, this is more than just a shot across the union’s bow. It’s a direct assault on a policy that ultimately cost firefighter Terry Parlow a promotion to lieutenant two years ago.
A few years ago,a position opened for a lieutenant within the fire department. Under the agreement, the vacant position had to be filled by one of the four acting first-lieutenants at the hall.
But after not finding a successful candidate following the first posting for the position, the city reposted the job, allowing acting second-lieutenants to apply.
As a result, Parlow, who at the time was an acting second-lieutenant, was hired, but his hiring was grieved by the union. The situation quickly became ugly after Ritchie himself was then suspended by the city for what it called deceitful conduct, and later fired him after it was alleged that he harassed and intimidated Parlow about the promotion.
Arbitration hearings held in 2012 eventually cleared Ritchie of wrongdoing and reinstated him back into his position within the fire department. As well, Parlow was demoted back to acting second-lieutenant.
Despite the rather contrived “win-win” settlement announced by the city and the union following the Parlow-Ritchie arbitration hearings two years ago — and in light of the city’s proposal this week — it’s pretty obvious to us that city management was not pleased that it lost its case.
If the city gets its way, it would have a much broader ability to choose who it promotes, and a situation like the one described above would be avoided — at least from the city’s point of view.
From the union standpoint, it makes some sense to have consensus among staff when it comes to choosing who gets promoted and who doesn’t. It’s easier to rally around and support a person who has already been given the green light by their peers.
And basing the system on seniority prevents a young firefighter who might have seven years of experience from leapfrogging over a more seasoned staffer with 12 or 20 years under his or her belt.
Fire departments are perhaps somewhat different animals than the ordinary workplace. The need for teamwork is especially strong when fighting fires or attending an accident scene. Firefighters and paramedics need to have trust and confidence in their leaders in these situations.
But, unlike Richie, we’re not entirely convinced that seniority necessarily results in the best candidate being promoted. Basing leadership positions on seniority or popularity may prevent someone with greater credentials from applying.
Leadership positions should be based on skill and confidence, as well as camaraderie among department staff. And in our opinion, this should be a management responsibility, not the union’s.