Monte Manson’s first challenge when he meets a group of firefighters is to overcome the perception that he’s in charge of a unit that could get them fired.
He knows his new post leading Cal Fire’s professional standards program has that reputation.
Cal Fire created it a year ago to get a handle on a series of scandals that had embarrassed the 112-year fire department, including a battalion chief’s murder of his mistress and reports of cheating and sex-related misconduct at its fire academy.
In fact, the department pitched the new office to the governor as an outfit that would address “personnel investigations and adverse actions” statewide.
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But 10 months into his assignment, Manson says its main emphasis centers on unifying personnel practices across a sprawling fire department that developed dozens of distinct cultures at its fire stations and regional commands around the state.
“We’ve got these disparate pieces out there. We have to pull together,” he said. “Right now the main thing is just to get everyone on the same page.”
He’s the first director of Cal Fire’s professional standards program, a 14-person office the department launched with a $4.4 million budget boost it received last year.
The creation of the office dovetails with a few other recent changes to Cal Fire personnel practices, including the opening of a centralized hiring review office and a spike in disciplinary actions that followed the 2014 scandals that rocked the department.
The Bee recently spoke with Manson, and separately with leaders of the state firefighter union, to get a sense of how the program is developing.
Since the scandals, did Cal Fire change its approach to discipline?
Cal Fire union leaders say the department is quicker to discipline employees for misconduct since the academy scandal.
For instance, Cal Fire Local 2881 Rank and File Director Tim Edwards said he has defended nine veteran firefighters in disputes that could lead to ther termination this calendar year.
Normally, Edwards says, the union gets involved in three or four of those terminations each year.
“Ever since they instituted the professional standards committee, they went to extreme punishment,” Edwards said. “What used to be demotions are terminations. What used to be corrective action letters now are demotions.”
Discipline records from Cal Fire also show a rise in punishment after the academy scandal. In 2014, the department handed down 74 so-called notices of adverse action, up from 45 the previous year. Seventeen firefighters did not meet probation standards that year, up from two in 2013.
In 2015, disciplinary actions were again relatively high, with 49 notices of adverse action and 27 probation rejections.
Last year, the number of disciplinary actions appeared declined somewhat, although the total number of cases is still greater than the department’s disciplinary actions in 2012 or 2013.
Cal Fire spokeswoman Janet Upton said the discipline trends are not related to the creation of the professional standards office. The recent years with the highest number of probation rejections and adverse actions – 2014 and 2015 – coincided with periods when the department had a higher number of seasonal workers and an extra promotion academies that some candidates did not pass, she said.
“We take transgressions seriously and we take serious action. In terms of the professional standards program, the focus is on an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
What has Manson done so far?
Since Manson’s hiring in October, he has added staff to fill out the office and met regularly with an advisory panel.
Manson’s advisory committee has representatives from different firefighter ranks, two union representatives, human resources experts and non-firefighter employees from other parts of the department.
“We want to make sure we have folks that understand what we’re doing out there, we want to hit that target audience,” to persuade Cal Fire employees to support the program, he said.
At full staffing, the standards office will have four statewide internal affairs investigators who will look into reports of misconduct, four battalion chiefs to guide policies, an attorney, an information technology analyst and administrative staff. The program does not yet have a team of internal affairs investigators.
Why is it so hard to change the department?
On paper, Cal Fire is a single department with 7,000 employees. In practice, it’s decentralized with different units that have made their own hiring decisions and developed their own identities.
Cal Fire also has a hodgepodge approach to investigating employee misconduct. When it looks into a serious allegation, it pulls from its ranks of law enforcement officers. They’re investigators who usually dig into arsons instead of their coworkers’ backgrounds.
Those mixed approaches can lead to inconsistent discipline, unprofessional seasonal employees finding ways to stay with the department by changing geographic units, or contribute to neglect when different leaders coach new employees on the department’s expectations.
“The issue is that they are operating independently of each other,” Manson said. “They aren’t in sync.”
Usually, firefighters coming into Cal Fire tend to receive limited training in professional standards. Entry-level seasonal firefighters do not receive any special professional training.
Instead, firefighters say, they often learn about professionalism from the firefighters around them.
“Really as far as employee conduct and what makes a good employee, that was never trained,” said Mike Lopez, president of the firefighter union, Cal Fire Local 2881. “I was very fortunate to have good leaders around me.”
Lopez and the union support that part of Manson’s program and say they want to see a faster roll-out of employee training.
What happens when the money runs out?
Cal Fire leaders last year said they envisioned the professional standards office as a three-year program whose employees would “work themselves out of a job.”
Today, Manson and Upton say they want the program to show results so it can become an ongoing part of the department.
“The department really intends to make this a permanent solution,” Manson said.