Inside the Pensacola Fire Chiefs report: Unwritten hiring practice not followed by chiefs, but all applicants passed

May 11, 2016

According to the attorney Russell Van Sickle, the primary reason Chief Human Resource Officer Ed Sisson filed his complaints against Pensacola Fire Chief Matt Schmitt and Deputy Fire Chief for their “alleged failure to follow normal hiring protocol for the January 2016 hiring round for new firefighters.”

Yesterday, Mayor Ashton Hayward announced that he fired the fire chiefs “due to a loss of confidence in their ability to lead the Pensacola Fire Department.” The mayor said he lost confidence after reading Van Sickle’s report on the two veteran firefighters who had been under an investigation for complaints filed against them by Sisson. The men had been on paid administrative leave since Feb. 2.

Van Sickle wrote that the chiefs failed “to have the applicants interviewed, scored, and ranked by an interview panel of firefighters.” The attorney wrote that there was no written rule requiring a structured interview panel for new firefighters. “However, the job application informs applicants that there will be a structured interview, and Schmitt and Glover agreed that the interview panel was the normal procedure.”

Wait a second. No written rules for hiring firefighters? Shouldn’t that have been addressed first by Sisson? When he rewrote the HR manual in November 2015, shouldn’t he have included hiring procedures for firefighters?

Hiring is handled primarily by Battalion Chief Brock Jester and HR. Jester told the attorney that it was Schmitt’s decision not to do the interview panels. When applicants were notified by email of the PAT dates, no mention was made of an interview panel. Glover was off on military leave much of January 2016.

“I’ve never been asked to convene an interview panel,” Glover told Inweekly today. “It’s not part of my job function. HR set up the last interview panel, not Brock.”

The deputy fire chief said that he was only involved in the last step of the hiring process when he and the chief interview the applicants that have passed the PAT and the interview panel. Most of the hiring process was handled by HR or Jester.

“I’ve never been involved in making selections for an interview panel, scheduling the interviews, or anything like that,” said Glover.

According to the report, Schmitt told Jester that he and Glover would conduct the interviews, which did happen on Jan. 21. When Glover showed up the day of the interviews of the eight applicants, he told Inweekly that he had no idea that the applicants had not been interviewed by a panel. Glover conducted a structured interview of each.

The applicants were applying to fill six positions, but Glover said that more spots would open up later in the year. All the applicants were white males from various parts of Florida. Glover told Inweekly that he passed all eight men to be hired.

Since all men were passed for hiring by Glover, the city had no legal exposure because the unwritten hiring practice of using an interview panel was not followed. None, even though Sisson told Van Winkle he filed the complaint because “PFD upper management was unnecessarily exposing the City to legal claims.”

Under Section F‐3 of the city’s HR manual, “City Management is responsible for communicating, whenever practical, deficiencies in job performance and provide direction to employees for taking corrective measures. When correction is necessary, counseling and reprimands are constructive methods of communicating to the employee and conveys the importance of meeting established performance standards and expectations.”

Instead of counseling Schmitt and Glover (who was not even part of the interview panel process or the decision to forgo it), Sisson filed a complaint that launched a three-month investigation and placed the two men on paid administrative leave. Sisson’s complaint was about a month after Glover filed his EEOC complaint.

I asked Deputy Chief Glover why the fire department never had written hiring procedures. He said he wasn’t sure, but it probably was a throwback to the days when the fire chiefs refused to hire African-Americans and City Hall let them get away with it.

In March, John Newton, the city’s first black firefighter, spoke at a Pensacola City Council about his fight to get hired:

I’m going to give you a history lesson. In 1969, a man came up and asked me would I take the test for the fire department, because he said that the personnel manager said poor blacks take the tests, or those that did take the test couldn’t pass. I said, “Okay, I’ll take the test.” I’ll go have a good job, and so I’ll do this. I took the test and came out number one on the list. Didn’t think any more about it until I found out that they hired 12 people without any call to me in for an interview, which was against the Civil Service regulations.

A friend of my father’s, Chappie James, was in town, heard about it. He had some lawyers in Atlanta contact me. They gave the city notice that we were going to file a suit against the city. And the fire Chief called me and asked if I could come down for an interview. He said that he had promised the opening to somebody else and he would give me the next opening. I said fine, you’re the chief.

The next day a man from the highway patrol came and offered me a job. Said “The fire chief told me to come and see you.” They didn’t want any blacks on the fire department back then. Chappie James said “The lawyers would be there, I’m paying for the attorney.” The next day the chief called me and said when do you want to go to work?”

I spent 10 years at a station where I slept, I was the only one sleeping in that bed. I didn’t have to take the linen off the bed at the end of each watch because nobody was sleeping in my bed.

I tell you, one time a came to work and all the beds were out on the hose rack, I asked what was wrong, they said they had bed bugs. I said “Well why did y’all put my bed out there?” “Yours didn’t have any bed bugs.” After that everybody wanted to sleep in my bed.

Rusty Wells was the city attorney at that time. And when I got hurt on the job and went into inspections, I had a chief that said don’t worry,in a private meeting and I was in the next room, I heard him he said “He won’t be here long, we never had..”, and I’ll say ‘blacks’ but that’s not the word he used. “We never had any blacks in a white shirt in this department, and as long as I’m the chief we won’t have one.”

I told a friend of mine, John Lewis Allbritton, an attorney, about it. We had a meeting with Rusty Wells and the city attorney and the city manager at that time, and the chief. After a few questions that the attorney asked the fire chief, Rusty Wells stood up and said “This meeting’s over with, chief you can leave, chief doesn’t know what he’s talking about”. Came down to it, the chief ended up resigning, retiring at the end of the year, two months later.

For the 47 years after Newton was hired, the City and all its HR directors have never made sure that the firefighter hiring process was written.

However, Van Sickle believed it was wrong for the chiefs to not follow an unwritten procedure about the interview panel.

“I find that neither Schmitt nor Glover was attempting to manipulate the hiring process to include or exclude any particular applicant,” he wrote. “However, Schmitt and Glover believed incorrectly they were capable of handling the hiring process without an interview panel and without any guidance from HR.”

The attorney said the men used “poor judgment” to conduct the hiring process without the interview panel.

“Their handling of the hiring process, from not understanding the value of a panel taking notes and individually scoring potential new firefighters; from not taking notes of any substance; from not acting to score and rank them from January 21 to at least January 26, when the application of the statutory veteran’s preference finally dawned on at least Glover, showed that they were not actually capable of properly handling the process.”

The Pensacola Fire Department has been rated the top city service for the past two years, according to surveys of city residents conducted by the Haas Center. Schmitt has been responsible for the hiring since the fall of 2010. Glover got involved later when he was made deputy chief. It would appear they have done a pretty good job of hiring. Read more.

Van Sickle did not take into account the public’s satisfaction with the fire department under the leadership of Schmitt and Glover. The interview panel, or lack of, was what he based his decision that the men were not capable of properly hiring firefighters.

He asserts, “..they intentionally ignored the proper process under the mistaken belief that they knew better than anyone else how to approach a hiring round for new firefighters.”

Based on the department’s record and the citizens’ ratings, the chiefs do know better.

This complaint appears to more about a turf war between the Chief Human Resources Officer and Pensacola Fire Chief, not about how the quality of men and women the department is hiring.  A set of written hiring procedures approved by Mayor Hayward would have settled this dispute.

Not using an interview panel is definitely not a firing offense.

Inexplicably, Van Sickle doesn’t recommend that the city put its hiring practices for firefighters in writing. Instead, he concludes, “Moving forward, the City would be better served by ensuring that each person serving on an interview panel has either been specifically trained for this task, or ensuring that an HR representative is present during the interviews to discuss at least initially with the panel the ‘do’s and don’ts’ and to be present to guide the process as the interviews proceed.”

Note: Has the city done any other hires without following normal hiring protocol written or not? One that comes to mind is Eric Olson, who was made city administrator without posting the job opening or interviewing other applicants. More will surface over the next few days.

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