The State Worker

Cal Fire’s anti-scandal solution: More paperwork

Cal Fire director urges good behavior to avoid a 'bad article'

With his department still recovering from scandal, Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott recently recorded a video urging his employees to make it "a leader in fire protection emergency response and resource management for California.”
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With his department still recovering from scandal, Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott recently recorded a video urging his employees to make it "a leader in fire protection emergency response and resource management for California.”

With his department still recovering from scandal, Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott recently issued a message to all his employees: Be good – and read six documents that define “good.”

“As a public safety agency, it is critical that we continue to uphold the public’s trust and expectations as we perform our daily tasks,” Pimlott wrote in the April 20 memo, before linking to the employee reading list.

There’s The Department’s Mission, Vision, and Values Statement, the Incompatible Activities Statement, the Equal Employment Opportunity policy, the Whistleblower Protection paper, the Chief’s Memo explaining the new employee complaint line, and the Cal Fire Code of Conduct – a cheat sheet suitable for folding into a wallet-sized card.

Once employees read the papers, Pimlott wrote, they must “sign the IIPP-6 (form) indicating that you have done so. Employees have until May 13 to file to your immediate supervisor, then to the appropriate Region Chief, Deputy Director, or Fire Marshal in your chain of command.”

The memo also included a link to an unlisted YouTube video featuring Pimlott encouraging employees to be upstanding citizens.

Although the department receives plenty of positive media coverage, “it only takes one bad article, however, to negate so much effort and work in that went into all of the good articles,” Pimlott says, looking as comfortable as a cat in a dog pound. “Let’s not be the bad article. Let’s continue to be a leader in fire protection emergency response and resource management for California.”

7,500The number of firefighters Cal Fire employs during the peak of the fire season

The video and documents are tools Pimlott has deployed to dig his way out of a heap of bad articles that started piling up two years ago after academy battalion chief Orville Fleming murdered his girlfriend in Elk Grove. The crime sparked an investigation of the department that exposed everything from academy employees who drank on the job and used state property to consort with hookers, to sexual harassment and institutional cheating on cadet examinations.

Meanwhile, state investigators recently hammered Cal Fire for its questionable promotional practices, sloppy personnel records and inability to explain how two captains demoted for cheating on verbal exams soon were promoted back to their former rank.

The department’s troubles prompted Gov. Jerry Brown to propose spending $4.4 million next fiscal year to form a new unit in Cal Fire to investigate, train and prevent future personnel missteps.

This is what state government does. It documents and trains and reminds, then trains and reminds and documents some more. It assumes that personnel problems stem from ignorance, not character.

But when it’s time to punish a wayward employee, all those documents form a veritable mountain of evidence that undercuts offenders’ claims that they didn’t know.

Of course, all of this inward examination takes time away from other training, from other work, from public service.

And for what? To explain, in excruciating detail, the difference between right and wrong.

Cal Fire Academy test writer Shannon Browne told CHP investigators in 2014 that instructors had thrown out results for questions some cadets couldn’t answer.

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