Differences between the city of Chula Vista and rank and file members of its fire department have reached such an extreme that neither side can even agree how to interact.
“There’s a huge issue with the labor-management relationship and it’s at a point that it’s detrimental with labor and management and it’s starting to affect everyday relationship and working conditions,” said John Hess, president of the International Association of Firefighters Local 2180. “And it needs to be fixed and the only real thing that’s going to do it is if we get someone from the outside who can mediate the situation.”
Hess said the communication between the firefighters and management — which includes the fire chief and deputy fire chiefs — is the worse it’s been in his 10 years in the department.
Last December the firefighters union gave Fire Chief Dave Hanneman a vote of no confidence.
Hess said the chief has made communication worse by pulling out of labor-management meetings, meetings Hess said that are important because they allow both parties to discuss issues within the department.
City Manager Jim Sandoval said a communications consultant is what’s needed, not a mediator.
“I don’t know if mediation is really the term that I would use or maybe exactly what he (Hess) means, but I think that we could all benefit from better communication,” he said.
Sandoval said he is exploring the idea of bringing in consultants with communication expertise to help improve the overall communication in the department.
Hess said a communications consultant isn’t the answer.
“A communications consultant is going to come in and they’re going to talk about how to communicate with each other. That’s not going to solve the problem,” Hess said.
“For one thing how can we communicate when one side (management) fails to show up to a meeting?”
Sandoval also said he is considering bringing in union leadership from both the Fire Chief’s Association and the Firefighter’s Association to look at how the labor and management discussions can improve.
Hess said the department has already done that and that strategy, he said, did not work.
Hess said a mediator will help bridge the communication gap because the city or the union won’t control them, they will be a third party.
Hess said the city should be responsible for paying for a mediator.
Sandoval said the size of the fire department could make the way for communication difficult.
“If you think about it in context, the department, even under the best of circumstances, has people that work on all different shifts, and they work in 10 different locations, so it makes it a real challenge to communicate in a way you want, so that’s something we’re going to really work hard on,” Sandoval said.