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Firefighters’ Ads Say 205 Available for Hire : Low Morale Is Cited; Santa Ana City Manager Says He May Advertise Also--for Replacements

Times Staff Writer

Santa Ana firefighters, saying years of problems have plunged department morale to an “all-time low,” have placed advertisements declaring that 205 Fire Department employees are “immediately available for hire.”

The advertisements, in the Orange County edition of The Times and the Orange County Register, list firemen, paramedics, captains and battalion chiefs as willing to “accept employment anywhere in Southern California.”

“These are dedicated professionals who can no longer tolerate the morale-wrecking working conditions imposed by Fire Chief (William) Reimer and City Manager Robert Bobb,” the advertisement states.

Officials of the Firemen’s Benevolent Assn., which placed the advertisements, said they are partly designed to inform the public of the problems in the Fire Department but that many employees are eager to leave. “We’ve lost quite a few firefighters (to other departments),” said Gary Bidgood, a fire engineer and president of the association, which represents firefighters, paramedics and engineers. “It’s a bona fide advertisement. There are a good number of firefighters who would readily take employment elsewhere.”

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Although the firemen currently are in contract negotiations, Jim Dalton, president of the Fire Management Assn., which represents battalion chiefs and captains, said the advertisement was “absolutely not” related to that action.

More than 30 people have left the Fire Department in the last two years, Dalton said. In addition, about 13 stress-related claims are on file; six people are off duty pending stress claim hearings, and about 50 grievances have been filed during the two years.

‘Assume They Are Serious’

“This is serious business,” Bobb said. “I have to assume that they are serious. If they are, then we will also place an advertisement for recruitment of firefighters to take their place.”

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He said a mass exodus of seasoned firefighters probably would have “some effect on fire protection in the city, but we’re going to do all we can to ensure the highest standards possible.”

Reimer said he doesn’t believe that all 205 people actually want to work somewhere else but said he is taking the situation seriously. “You bet I am,” he said. “If we have people that want to seek employment elsewhere, then I would suggest they do that.”

Both Bobb and Reimer said they would take no disciplinary action as a result of the advertisements.

The problems have intensified since the city began moving to an all-civilian paramedic corps last year, said attorney Seth Kelsey, who represents both fire associations. Many of the people who have left the department are former “sworn” paramedics (those who are also trained in firefighting) who were reassigned to firefighting duties in the move to “civilianize” the department.

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Grievances Filed

Kelsey said the problems include unfair discipline meted out by fire administrators, citing a case in which a battalion chief was suspended for 144 hours without pay after he counseled a paramedic to see a psychiatrist because he was acting “stressed-out.” A grievance was filed, and the city personnel board ordered the city to reimburse the battalion chief for the hours lost.

Two fire captains also were suspended without pay after they allegedly discussed the paramedic issue with members of the community at a fire scene. One of the suspensions was for 30 days and the other for 45. That case also was appealed to the personnel board, resulting in a cancellation of the suspensions and in their place a letter of reprimand to one of the captains.

Kelsey also has filed three lawsuits against the city.

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One, which is set for a January hearing in Superior Court, alleges that city officials engaged in union-breaking activities by trying to talk civilian paramedics out of joining the association.

Another lawsuit seeks to reverse the city’s move to reassign the remaining four firefighter-paramedics, despite what Kelsey alleges was a city pledge to reassign all but those positions. Bobb said there was no such promise.

A Superior Court judge recently denied Kelsey’s attempt to block the reassignments until the lawsuit is decided. No hearing date has been set.

Civilian Paramedic

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The third case involves a civilian paramedic who was fired and then denied a grievance hearing because of his status as a temporary employee. Kelsey claims the paramedic had attained the probationary level.

Kelsey said the paramedic issue is only the latest of many problems and that an adversary relationship and lack of communication between management and employees has led to a crisis situation within the department.

“The people I deal with usually have a very high sense of self-worth and self-esteem, almost a macho image. But when these guys (Santa Ana firefighters) walk into my office, they are utterly beaten,” he said.

Bobb, who admitted that there is a dire morale problem, said he has tried to delve into the matter with little success. “I have not understood it, and we’ve met repeatedly with them and asked them to deal in specifics. We are not going to deal in innuendoes,” he said. “It seems clear that they’re not interested in resolving the issues in a realistic sense.”

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