Detroit fire union drops 50-year battle to keep seniority-only promotions

The city of Detroit and the union that represents firefighters have reached a tentative agreement to overhaul the fire department’s 128-year-old promotional system that mayors have tried to overturn for nearly half a century.

Since virtually the founding of the department in 1867, firefighters’ promotions have been governed by a strict seniority system in which new firefighters advance through the ranks only as fast as their colleagues with more years of service retire or leave the department.

Merit counts for nothing, and the DFD’s mayoral-appointed commissioners have almost no say in the selection of uniformed officers who run the department’s rigs, stations and districts day-to-day.

Under the agreement, starting next July 1 the mayor’s appointees will have vastly increased powers to make personnel decisions, and the culture of the department is sure to undergo a profound transformation as smart, ambitious firefighters begin to compete for high-ranking positions.

Seniority will account for only 45 percent of the yardstick for advancement in the new DFD; merit –- including work record and education – will make up much of the rest.

“It’s huge,” said Jeff Pegg, president of the Detroit Fire Fighters Association.

“It’s not what we want. There is nothing wrong with our seniority system. We believe seniority is the fairest system out there. It doesn’t discriminate. It doesn’t pick and choose. It puts the most experienced people in leadership positions in the Detroit Fire Department.”

Mayor Mike Duggan participated in the negotiations and told the union members he was seeking the changes so the department would be run by “the best and the brightest,” according to Pegg. Duggan’s spokesman could not be reached for comment.

Bill Nowling, spokesman for Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr, said he could not discuss the negotiations because they are in mediation. But he added:

“The emergency manager has consistently pushed for work rules and city processes that are modern, efficient and in line with those in place in other major cities.”

Hard-fought defense crumbles

The issue is a highly emotional one for the department. The union, which represents all uniformed personnel and some non-uniformed workers, has spent hundreds of thousands in legal costs fending off mayors’ attempts to disrupt the seniority system since the 1960s.

The union has defeated every challenge to seniority until now, when Public Act 436 appears to allow Orr to reject, modify or terminate labor agreements.

Pegg said the union entered into negotiations so it could have some influence on the outcome.

“I tell our members, you can have something we worked on or something they impose on us,” he said.

The DFD is the sole major department in the country in which only seniority counts toward promotions. Merit promotions, at least at some levels, also have long been the rule among big-city police, including the Detroit Police Department.

Mayors going back to Jerome Cavanagh have attempted to maneuver around the fire department’s seniority system through unilateral promotions, lawsuits and arbitration.

Seniority took on racial dimensions in the 1970s and ‘80s, when the fire department’s promotional rules slowed the progress of African Americans through the ranks and made the DFD the only city department to resist Mayor Coleman Young’s affirmative-action efforts for upper management.

Twice, in the mid-’70s, the union won court battles to block Young's attempts to appoint black chiefs of operations by skirting the seniority system. Young lost again on the issue in 1979 and 1985 when arbitrators sided with the union.

Detroiters even voted on the seniority system in 1981, when the Young administration put the issue on the ballot. Voters supported dumping seniority, but the proposal was later declared a non-binding referendum.

Under the current system, a recruit generally will remain in the primary rank of firefighter for at least 18 years before being promoted to sergeant, then spend several more years before becoming a lieutenant, then a few more before obtaining the rank of captain. Officers in those ranks command the department’s fire rigs and stations.

After a handful of additional years, captains – if they have yet to reach the mandatory retirement age of 60 – will reach battalion chief, the rank that supervises a district within the city and manages major fires within that area. The fire commissioner can choose the department’s three top chiefs from among the pool of battalion chiefs.

A faster way up

Under the new plan, firefighters will be able to apply to become a sergeant after eight years of service. Sergeants, lieutenants and captains must spend 30 months in their classification before applying to the next grade.

Applicants will take a written test, receive an evaluation of work and disciplinary history and undergo an interview. Each applicant for every rank must have completed specialized fire training, and captains applying to become battalion chiefs must have at least an associates’ degree. All applicants for promotions also will have to have emergency medical training.

Mayors and other city officials have criticized the seniority system as a breeding ground for mediocrity because there is no incentive for firefighters to improve themselves through education or other avenues.

The union has argued for years that the department has failed to provide training for its members and charged department executives botched managing the seniority system.

One of the ways the union has defeated attempts to scuttle the seniority system is the DFD’s reputation as one of the nation’s busiest and best departments.

In ruling against the city in 1985, the arbitrator wrote: “It is difficult to perceive that if the promotional system is as defective and inefficient as alleged by the city, the city could have enjoyed such a fine department.”

In the DFD, seniority plays roles beyond promotions. It also influences how fire fighters get assigned to their stations. In the current bargaining, the city is demanding the right for the commissioner to make station assignments, but that remains under negotiation.

Some firefighters said Monday they haven’t seen details of the tentative agreement and declined to comment on the record.

One veteran said he would pursue his education to ensure he could win promotions under the new system, but asked what Duggan and Orr see as the problem with the current system.

The department’s real problems are broken rigs, faulty equipment and too few firefighters, he said, noting the overhaul of seniority does nothing to address those issues.

Pegg, the union chief, acknowledged he has received some negative reaction, with a few members saying the union sold out.

Pegg said he tells members that under the city’s financial emergency, the seniority issue was a lose/lose more situation like the plan of adjustment – the bankruptcy blueprint to reduce pensions that city workers had to approve or face more drastic cuts.

If the union hadn’t participated in negotiations, he said, the city could have created a system that would be even more draconian.

Said Pegg: “I tell them you can put a gun to your head or to your foot.”

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adaj parr
Tue, 07/29/2014 - 11:26am
Let's not get it twisted. The heavy hand of Snyder and Orr are calling the shots. Not Duggan! Not the person who's in the mayor office illegally through a corrupt election process exposed during the recount of the 2013 mayoral primary. Mike Duggan is running a deceptive criminal enterprise on behalf of the downtown association. Fraudulent ballots were uncovered during the recount of the 2013 mayoral primary. Fraudulent ballots that were not investigated by the Wayne County Board of Canvassers under Chairwoman Carol Larkin. Fraudulent ballots that were suppressed by attorney Butch Hollowell representing Duggan and the Detroit Branch NAACP under Wendell Anthony. Fraudulent ballots with the name Mike Duggan. Mike Duggan is not the legal mayor of the city of Detroit. Going further, there are Detroit City Council members who are illegally in office based on the fact fraudulent ballots were uncovered by the challengers and not investigated by board of canvassers. Which tells us, we don't know who is legally elected in Detroit city government. This huge question mark will keep Detroit from moving forward. In addition, the Detroit media supports the big lie by printing half-truth support the big lie! Bill McGraw, onboard supporting corruption, printing false and misleading statements. Is everyone in Detroit for sale?
Dfd 10yrs
Tue, 07/29/2014 - 12:22pm
This is all about the administration being able to promote who ever they want!! Check out DPD's promotional system and how many lawsuits have happened! What's wrong with keeping seniority and adding manditory schooling? I'll tell you what, you can't promote you buddies doing that!!! In a life or death situation, I trust the guy with the most experience NOT the commisioners buddy or the best test taker! THIS IS WRONG!!!!!!!
Tue, 07/29/2014 - 10:00pm
I agree with you and I would use my wealth of experience and honed instincts in the field to make sure that you would be able to get into your car in the next morning and go home to your family...An 8 year officer will not be able to give you that pledge because he would not be mentally equipped enough to do so...That's just the nature of the beast in this chosen field and on this chosen battleground. There is no such thing as a "garden variety" fire as one of our former commissioners once deemed them as. I believe this is a political move and that nepotism will rear it's ugly head in the worst way and those that think they will benefit from this change will ultimately suffer the most and endanger the lives of their own "brothers" and that of the citizens of Detroit.
Thu, 07/31/2014 - 12:15am
Dfd, Are you sure that senority guarantees the best person for the job, the one with the most knowledge and best skills and best judgement? In all the places I have worked seniority has seldom proven to be the sole or best criteria for getting the best person into the most critical roles. That has proven true for all of the more extreme situations I have been it. 5-10 years of experience seems to be important with lesser years being more valuable based on the intensity of experience, but what was most critical was the judgment and the ability to apply their knowledge and skills when assessing the situation, deciding on action, and quickly taking action. I have found that much of the knowledge and skills and even assessment abilities could be learned from formal training. The decisiveness came both from training and application/experience. However, not everyone who had the experience became exceptionally capable as you seem to suggest.
Frank English
Tue, 07/29/2014 - 12:26pm
The changing of the department's promotional system will result in politics determining who is going to be promoted, (race, sex). The police department has used this process for promotion for many years with dire results in police management. I understand that 20% of the total score will result from a oral interview. Basically, you can ace the test, have the seniority, but lack the politics to get promoted. Eliminate the oral interview and I could embrace the new system. However, that will not happen. The fire department will have fire officers who have the most political drag. Then the fire department can have the same lousy management team the police do. Captain Frank English (retired)
Thu, 07/31/2014 - 12:18am
Captain, English, Would it be possible to develop a means of evaluation that could go beyond seniority or do you believe that the internal politics would prevent it from working?
Tommis Styles
Tue, 11/04/2014 - 12:26am
Duane, it's going to be 80% nepitisim/politics. Trust me, the Capt (hey Capt English, this is Lynn, btw) and everyone else with the badge know much more of what we're talking about because we see it happen every day, even without the new system in place. Seniority isn't the best system, but it's the fairest and most transparent.
DFD Underboss
Tue, 07/29/2014 - 2:07pm
For all the number crunchers out there , compare DFD's manpower, fire load, fire service hours( actual fires), run service( false alarms, car accidents, assist EMS, etc.), property saves, life saves, and firefighter MORTALITY RATE. Now compare those numbers to the "test taking" departments. You will find that ALL of our guys go home EVERY morning. We are SEASONED VETS due to experience and repetition. When my ass is on the line ( which it has been) I would much preferr to be with a seasoned guy as opposed to a test taker, because you can't throw a book at it and expect it to go out, it takes experience, I dare you to compare.
Wed, 07/30/2014 - 2:13pm
I could not agree more. The Fire Service is of Pride, Dedication, and Devotion to the service by dedicated individuals. Detroit Firefighters are of a different breed. There is nothing wrong with the way members have been promoted with their system. Taking a test you can be promoted without your feet even being wet. I hate to hear with Detroit Seniority Promotions, oh it is just a wait in line. NO ITS A BUST YOUR ASS LINE FIRST in DFD. IT IS A PROVE YOURSELF LINE WHEN SPLIT SECOND DECISIONS NEED TO BE MADE ON THE SPOT. As said with test takers you have all the time in the world to evaluate, decide, figure out how you want to go about the question. In real world reality there is no time for that. It is who you are as that firefighter on the line, on the roof, operating an apparatus etc etc. It will be sad to see tradition like this broken. A lot can be learned from Detroit Fire across this country, but many laugh and argue and say Detroit Fire is all messed up. Before you say anything, go there and see for yourself and your perspective will totally change. You can't judge anything just by reading an article or seeing a video. Real World / Real Time! I am amazed at what they work with and how they do it. . . It is very impressive. Good Luck Detroit Fire.
Wed, 07/30/2014 - 3:04pm
Your comment is only based on what you do in the DFD You make it sound that those of us with experience and education work on fire departments don't work to keep our personnel safe while doing the job. I'm sure former Commissioner Donald Austin had this type of promotional change in mind.
Thu, 07/31/2014 - 1:13am
Underboss, Are you suggesting that you have never seen a 'seasoned' veterans ignore protocols when fighting a fire and those actions did not increase their personal risk and even that of others? I have found that there can be a threshold of experience where an individual becomes over confident and rationalizes that with all their experience that they know better then those who 'wrote' the operational protocols. It sounds like you don't believe that is possible, that experience only makes people better and superior to those with less time in the job. As much as I respect those who put themselves as such risk when going into a structure fire or who respond to hazardous incidents, unless you can describe how DFD makes them different I am skeptical that seniority is the best criteria for placing people in particular roles.
Tracy Davis
Tue, 07/29/2014 - 6:49pm
“It’s not what we want. There is nothing wrong with our seniority system. We believe seniority is the fairest system out there. It doesn’t discriminate. It doesn’t pick and choose. It puts the most experienced people in leadership positions in the Detroit Fire Department.”....No matter how incompetent of a leader they may be.
Tue, 07/29/2014 - 7:42pm
After all They have taken In the end you know you will get yours.Now It's who you know, we'll let that new boss lead the way and see how many houses burn to the ground. They are not going in.
Tue, 07/29/2014 - 10:10pm
I agree with you and I would use my wealth of experience and honed instincts in the field to make sure that you would be able to get into your car in the next morning and go home to your family...An 8 year officer will not be able to give you that pledge because he would not be mentally equipped enough to do so...That's just the nature of the beast in this chosen field and on this chosen battleground. There is no such thing as a "garden variety" fire as one of our former commissioners once deemed them as. I believe this is a political move and that nepotism will rear it's ugly head in the worst way and those that think they will benefit from this change will ultimately suffer the most and endanger the lives of their own "brothers" and that of the citizens of Detroit.
Tue, 07/29/2014 - 11:51pm
As a 27 year veteran of the fire service who spent the majority of my career in a "pure seniority" promotional system, I can unequivocally state that the effect of this kind of promotional system is to drag the department down to the lowest common denominator - when the laziest, most ignorant, most unmotivated firefighter can rise to the top of the organization primarily because he could stumble into work every shift, why would anyone else do more. The fact that DFD is the last department in the country operating under this kind of system speaks volumes about the caliber of the Department.
frank macrae
Wed, 07/30/2014 - 6:58am
It took me 21 yrs to become a sergeant. I then was in at least 2,000 fires. We were the best interior firefighters in the country. Now only politicians will be promoted. Firehouse politicians make the worst firefighters. If one wants to be promoted all they have to do is go to the mayor's $1,000 a plate reelection breakfasts.
Fri, 08/01/2014 - 7:40pm
Let's see if I understand this: DFD is the ONLY dept in the country using senority as the sole basis for promotion. I guess that makes the promotional process for 99.99999999% (or so) of the other FD's in the country flawed; I knew Detroit was special but NOT that special!
Mon, 08/04/2014 - 8:57am
Clearly the DFD membership (as displayed with these comments) is paranoid, living in 1867 and unaware HOW inefficient their 'system' is. Probably has a 'horse shoer' somewhere in a job description. With ALL of these comments, I couldn't be happier to see seniority diminished when promotions are involved. Note ONLY when a contract could be dissolved, did the union want to become 'involved.' Goes to show you: public unions must be have their powers 'leveraaged.'
Mon, 08/04/2014 - 5:52pm
This bankruptcy trial is going to force a lot of changes in Detroit. The change in the fire department structure is just the first of many dominoes to fall.
Tue, 12/30/2014 - 11:25am
With both his engines dead at a low altitude and only seconds to go before reaching the ground, Sully Sullenberger put his airliner down safely on the Hudson River without loss of life. He was a product of a rigid seniority system. Experience matters.