Charleston fire chief responds to rank-and-file charges of internal strife, sagging morale
Charleston Fire Chief Karen Brack knew there would be some bumps in the road when she took the helm last year from a beloved leader who helped the Fire Department rebuild after a deadly blaze claimed nine men.
New leaders bring fresh ideas and styles to the table, Brack said, and she anticipated some resistance to change.
“Every fire chief is different,” said Brack, the first woman to lead the city’s Fire Department. “There is a period of adjustment for everybody.”
Some firefighters contend that Brack’s tenure has brought internal strife and sagging morale to the department, and as many as two dozen are said to be contemplating jumping ship in a mass resignation, according to past and present firefighters.
“It’s like a ticking time bomb there,” said former firefighter Scott Jainchill, who quit in May.
Some firefighters accuse Brack of being aloof and unwilling to listen to their ideas and concerns. Others said her safety-first approach to the job has saddled them with directives and hobbled their ability to fight fires. Still others contend that she is trying to force out veterans who were with the department during the deadly Sofa Super Store fire in 2007.
A dozen firefighters already have complained to City Council members about Brack, the state of the department and sinking morale. Their concerns prompted a meeting last week between council members and Mayor Joe Riley, with Public Safety Committee Chairwoman Kathleen Wilson vowing to get to the bottom of the rift.
“When you hear one complaint, you take it with a grain of salt, then you hear another and say ‘That’s odd.’ Then another, then it starts to catch my attention,” Wilson said. “We need to see this through, and we don’t want any situation to escalate out of control.”
Brack, who took over in August 2012, said much of the discontent appears to stem from misinformation generated by an overactive rumor mill.
“This is a little bit of a rough spot, but I know we will work through it,” she said. “I think we are a growing, changing, vibrant fire department.“
She said she’s not trying to undermine the old guard, is more than willing to listen to good ideas and is less visible than her predecessor mostly because she’s busy working on a host of projects to make the Fire Department better.
Among other things, Brack said, she is juggling a push for national accreditation for the Fire Department, the addition of two fire stations, the purchase of new trucks, the implementation of a new command training program and an overhaul of the department’s complicated pay system.
“I understand why the guys think they don’t see me,” she said. “But I hope that what we’re doing is putting into place more initiatives.”
Riley stands behind Brack and said she’s doing a great job, calling her a “strong leader.” He said he has looked into the firefighters’ complaints and sees no evidence that Brack has done anything but her best for the city.
“I think with new leadership, and in some ways a new approach to things, that sometimes it’s unsettling,” he said. “But I haven’t seen or heard anything that gives me concern at all.”
Others strongly disagree.
Among them is Jainchill, an eight-year veteran who said the current leadership and their “timid” approach to firefighting “had taken the love out of the job” and drove him to resign. He recently penned a critical missive about the department’s “disheartened” state that widely circulated on Facebook and fire service websites.
Also making the rounds is a letter addressed to Gov. Nikki Haley and the citizens of Charleston decrying at-length the changes under Brack and describing the Fire Department as “the most unorganized and miserable place in the world.” The letter is signed: “Charleston firefighters.”
Fire Capt. Chris Villarreal, a 20-year veteran who leads the local firefighters union, also has been critical of Brack, accusing her of slamming shut the open-door policy that existed under former Fire Chief Tom Carr, who died in April after a lengthy illness. Villarreall filed for disability retirement last week, citing post-traumatic stress from the sofa store fire.
Villarreal, who has accused Brack of engaging in a “smoke and mirrors” dialogue with firefighters, was summoned to her office Thursday after speaking with The Post and Courier. He emerged offering a more positive assessment of Brack, saying she seemed genuinely concerned about his complaints.
Villarreal said they spoke about morale problems and he told her the simple act of blowing the horn and waving while passing a fire station would go a long way to building trust with the rank-and-file.
“These things needed to be brought to her attention,” he said. “I’m giving her the benefit of the doubt.”
The Charleston Fire Department has struggled at times to find its identity in the wake of the 2007 sofa store fire, to find the right balance between modern, safety-oriented techniques and the aggressive, hard-charging tactics that defined most of its history.
Over the past six years, the department has undergone a massive and expensive overhaul meant to shore up equipment, command and tactical problems exposed by the deadly fire.
Much of the initial overhaul was shepherded by Carr, who took over as chief in November 2008. Initially, he met rumblings of discontent as well from firefighters who complained about the pace of change and how little they saw of Carr, whom some had dubbed “the ghost.”
In time, Carr drew the respect and trust of many in the rank-and-file and came to be known not only as a visionary leader, but a “fireman’s fire chief.” He traveled to station houses to meet face-to-face with front-line firefighters. He opened lines of communication with the local firefighters union and involved everyone from assistant chiefs to the rank-and-file in drafting a new playbook for the department.
When illness forced him to step down, the city selected Brack to take the helm after a nationwide search. The Savannah native, 57, came to the department from a deputy chief’s post in Eugene, Ore., with three decades of fire-service experience.
Brack acknowledges that her style is different than Carr’s, perhaps a bit more “straight-forward.” She is more apt to have firefighters try to resolve issues through the chain of command before approaching her. She likes to have a plan in place before launching programs or making changes. If firefighters want to meet with her, she wants to hear well-formulated initiatives, not off-the-cuff ideas.
“I don’t think I work from quite the same place they were used to in the past,” she said. “But that’s a different leadership style. It doesn’t have anything to do with whether I like them or not.”
Brack rubbed some firefighters the wrong way last year when she questioned the efficiency of the Charleston Firefighter Support Team, a popular, city-run program that provided counseling to firefighters and their families dealing with the sofa store blaze and other issues.
Some felt she was trying to get rid of the program’s director, Gerald Mishoe, a trusted pillar of support for many. Mishoe stayed, but in July the program split off from the city and transformed into a nonprofit regional group.
“That was the first thing she did, was take that, and just destroy it,” Villarreal said.
Brack doesn’t see it that way. She has said the change made the program stronger and more cost-effective by making it regional in scope, helping more people and making others contribute to the cost of its funding. The city had paid $346,340 to run the program on its own.
To some, the move left a bad taste, as did Brack’s efforts to clamp down on sick leave by checking on absent firefighters to make sure they were ill and make them provide a doctor’s note. Rumors spread that commanding officers would be visiting sick firefighters’ homes to verify first-hand that they weren’t playing hooky. Brack said that wasn’t true.
She said she was just ensuring that city policy was followed, and that other firefighters weren’t unfairly being asked to cover shifts for colleagues trying to tack another day onto their vacations or holidays.
Some, however, saw it as a lack of trust and a further sign of Brack distancing herself from the rank-and-file. They complained that she doesn’t stop by the station houses to chat with the troops, and keeps her distance at fire scenes.
Brack said she would love to spend more time in the station houses, and points out that she made two rounds of visits since becoming chief. But she said her plate is full with important initiatives that demand her time and attention.
A priority, she said, is to restructure a complicated pay system that resulted from a 1990s lawsuit the union filed against the city, resulting in a fluctuating workweek. Firefighters contend that the system is difficult to navigate and shortchanges them on overtime compensation.
Brack said she is trying to find the estimated $350,000 needed to make the shift from a salary-based system to one using hourly wages. As for the knock that she’s too timid in attacking fires, she called that “an urban legend” that has drawn “a lot of overreaction.” She said she just doesn’t want to expose firefighters to undue risks.
Brack noted that firefighters were inside a historic East Bay Street building for 40 minutes battling an April blaze before commanders deemed that it was too dangerous to continue. They then battled the fire from outside and kept it from spreading to neighboring buildings, earning high praise in the process.
Fire Marshal Mike Julazadeh said many of the safety measures some firefighters are griping about were developed and instituted during Carr’s tenure as chief, with input from the rank-and-file.
Still, dissatisfaction remains, as do rumors of a mass exodus and laments about the high turnover in the Fire Department under Brack. City statistics, however, show the turnover rate to have declined each year since the Sofa Super Store fire, when 17.5 percent of the department’s firefighters left. The department has more than doubled its manpower since that time, and currently has 292 firefighters.
So far this year, the turnover rate is just under 6 percent. The mayor said he sees no cause for concern with that rate, or with Brack’s performance as chief. City Council members aren’t ready to sound the alarm just yet either, but some on the Public Safety Committee are troubled by the unrest they sense in the Fire Department.
Councilman William Dudley Gregorie said he understands the challenges of a new management assignment, and he believes Brack has the tools and experience to address those issues that arise. “But if the chief does not address those issues and she lets this fester, then we are definitely going to have a problem on our hands,” he said.
Councilman Bill Moody agreed, and, like Gregorie, believes further inquiry into the situation is warranted.
“There is smoke showing and there is some fire here somewhere,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a raging inferno and I don’t want it to become a raging inferno. “I think everyone got their eyes open to this now,” he said. “Now, everyone is looking to see if we can make some good happen.”
Reach Glenn Smith at 937-5556 or Twitter.com/glennsmith5. Reach Natalie Caula at 937-5594 or Twitter.com/ncaula.