By COLIN STAUB
Not long after investigating (and criticizing) Portland firefighters’ use of city water to wash personal vehicles during downtime, Portland City Auditor Mary Hull Caballero has targeted their bureau again with an unflattering report on workplace culture.
But this time, International Association of Fire Fighters Local 43 and bureau management are in agreement: They say the study uses four-year-old data and ignores progress that has been made in the time since then.
Published June 29, the audit says the bureau “has not invested the time, attention, and resources needed for a coherent employee accountability system.” It says some workers feel alienated by the family-like work environment, and that the bureau needs to better handle complaints and investigations into worker behavior.
Local 43 president Isaac McLennan says the audit isn’t indicative of the wider culture within the bureau.
“I think it’s a snapshot,” McLennan said. “I think it’s narrow-viewed.”
McLennan said there have certainly been cases where workers were disciplined for unprofessional behavior. But the audit gives the impression the bureau is full of intolerance.
“By and large, that’s just not true,” McLennan said.
It’s also based largely on what Fire Chief Sara Boone described as “stale information.” From the audit itself: “The Bureau has recently taken steps to diversify through changes to recruitment and hiring. But a 2018 workplace study found that some women and people of color in the Bureau feel alienated in the white-male dominant environment, and the family-like culture allows some employees to behave unprofessionally in the workplace.”
Boone, who became chief in 2019, responded that the audit “highlights our challenges but does not provide balanced information about the measures we are taking to address the challenges.” The bureau provided human resources training to all supervisors in 2021. All newly hired supervisors go through training from the City Attorney’s office. The bureau has requested (and not received) funding for personnel that would improve the complaint filing system.
McLennan agreed there’s a close-knit culture within the bureau: Firefighters sometimes spend more time with their coworkers than their families, and they form close bonds. McLennan said that could be off-putting for someone who wants to simply come to work and leave at the end of the day.
“That’s not who we are,” he said. “We’re a family.”