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Verona says it’s addressing problems in its fire department identified in report

November 14, 2018

A consultant’s scathing report alleging poor leadership and lack of professionalism within the Verona Fire Department has prompted the city to create a plan to address the problems, Verona’s mayor said Tuesday.

The investigation and report, for which the city paid $6,875, addressed complaints raised by the local firefighters union and included a summary of the culture of the department, based on interviews with command officers, full-time firefighters and EMS personnel, and interns.

Despite the summary’s harsh tone — members complained of “ineffective, inadequate and frequently a complete lack of leadership” — the report identified “solvable problems” within the Fire Department, and the city is moving to “enhance the culture and professional direction” of the department, Mayor Luke Diaz said.

The city is also ordering Fire Department employees to undergo training to prevent harassment, discrimination and retaliation as well as cultural sensitivity and interpersonal communication training, Diaz said.

And department leaders have been ordered to delegate responsibilities to other members and communicate with “greater collaborative focus” on matters of department importance, Diaz said. That includes seeking input from members and formalizing programs.

“Public safety is a top priority for me,” Diaz said. “While it appears some of these issues have been ongoing for some time, city leadership is committed to solving problems no matter when they started.”

The report was compiled by Dale Burke, a senior associate with The Riseling Group, and was based on interviews with Fire Department personnel, who are not named. It was released Tuesday by members of Fire Fighters Local 311, the union representing full-time firefighters in the city. It doesn’t cite anyone by name but strongly implies the problems stem from Fire Chief Joseph Giver.

“The truth is (the department) is barely functioning,” said Ted Higgins, the secretary/treasurer for Fire Fighters Local 311. “It’s as hostile a work environment as you can imagine.

“If that report is not a vote of no confidence in the leadership of a fire department, I don’t know what is,” said Higgins, who called on Giver to step down. “I mean, that’s an embarrassment.”

Giver did not return messages seeking comment Tuesday.

The report found that members believe “leadership does not seek out or want input from subordinates” and that there is “an accepted lack of professionalism within the department and the perception of an overly relaxed environment around the station.”

Members also said they felt the department had no defined mission, and no one could remember when any strategic planning was last undertaken.

The policy and procedure manual were summarized as being “outdated and never followed and not trained on. Most members have not seen it since the day they were hired and do not know where to find it. The Code of Conduct is for the most part overly vague.”

Several department members described “a toxic, hostile work environment,” the report said, and complained about the department’s reputation with the public and other agencies.

Prompted by complaint

The report was ordered by the city after the union complained in June that Fire Department leadership was too harsh with its decision to suspend a member for a week without pay for yelling at an intern, according to Higgins.

Higgins said members of the department believe a double standard exists because Assistant Chief Donald Catenacci was not reprimanded for what Higgins described as rough treatment of members over the years.

“That’s the nexus of the whole thing, of how this all came together,” Higgins said. “There are two sets of rules going on here.”

Catenacci did not return a message seeking comment.

Higgins said the union received the first part of the report dealing with the complaint but didn’t know the summary of the culture existed until Diaz mentioned it at an Oct. 22 meeting.

Diaz ordered a copy of the summary be sent to Higgins, who said he received it on Nov. 5.

By then, city administrators had already adopted a plan to improve the Fire Department and communicated their expectations to Giver, who Diaz said supports the plan. He said the city received the entire report from the Riseling Group on Sept. 25, and the city had established its plan in response to that report on Oct. 10.

Other initiatives the Fire Department must complete that were ordered by city administrators include:

Establishing a mission, vision and strategic planUndergoing policy reviews and seeking external help with revising major policy changes, after getting city committee and council approvalIdentifying education and training opportunities relative to specific job duties and responsibilities.

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