EVERETT — This has always been a labor town.
In modern-day Everett, that means a firefighters union that pushes for high-quality public service, good pay and good benefits. Firefighters help the sick and the injured, and people listen when they have something to say. That makes the union a powerful political ally.
Leaders of the union, Local 46, have long made clear they’re not fans of Murray Gordon, who’s been fire chief since 2001. The local has taken two no-confidence votes against the chief since 2011.
The latest controversy over a firefighter’s allegations that Gordon, 61, showed signs of being intoxicated at a fatal fire last month — something Gordon denies — underscores the years of contention between him and the union.
Local 46 represents about 165 firefighters and paramedics, up through the rank of division chief. That leaves support staff and secretaries, plus five assistant chiefs and the fire chief not in the union. The fire department serves a population of more than 100,000.
The union’s contract negotiations with the city have long been at an impasse, and now will be decided by an arbitrator. That review will start in February. The last time that happened, in 2013, it took seven months to get a decision.
The relationship is so testy that at times the sides can’t even agree on which are their most serious disagreements. They also draw conclusions from different sets of data.
Public safety or pay and benefits?
The firefighters claim the city is putting the public in danger by not providing the department enough staff and resources. The city says the disagreement is more about firefighter pay and benefits. Mayor Ray Stephanson has accused the union of refusing to come to the table.
The union’s contract doesn’t just govern pay. It spells out how firefighters are disciplined and how to proceed when there are labor disputes. And there are plenty of those in Everett.
The current holdup on the contract is over pay and health-care coverage.
Staffing levels — how many firefighters are on shift at any given time — was removed from this round of negotiations. The firefighters maintain that department managers can’t decide how many people are working.
That dispute is expected to be reviewed by a state labor-management board. The city filed a complaint in July 2015, with a hearing scheduled for April.
The fire department is budgeted for 166 firefighters and paramedics, with 10 of those slots expected to be filled by hires scheduled this spring. The city considers that full staffing. The union wants more aid cars in service, complete with crews.
Those conversations are happening as the City Council tries to make policy decisions about the future of the fire department. Public safety accounts for more than half of the city’s spending, and firefighters these days respond to many more medical emergencies than blazes. The fire department’s budget of $29 million includes emergency medical services, but not other costs such as pensions and fire trucks. There has been talk of changing how the city uses private ambulances, and Stephanson has expressed interest in asking the Legislature to make it possible for cities to collect more EMS taxes. Part of the problem is that non-emergency 911 calls are consuming resources at an unsustainable rate.
The City Council has no timeline on a decision about what the fire department could look like in the future.
The city last year paid for a $66,400 study by a consultant who recommended closing two fire stations. The union said the study was designed for leverage in labor negotiations, and that was clear from the get-go. Stephanson says that’s not true.
Fire Capt. Sebastian Sittig, also a union negotiator, spoke at a Dec. 16 council committee meeting.
Under the current conditions, the crews are facing too much risk of death and injury on the job, and people who live and work in Everett are exposed, he said.
“As we continue to decrease our service and increase our risk, we create huge liability to the city because it’s a known factor that we’re having higher work and not as many units available,” he said. “These things are going to occur more often. And it seems smart to head that off now.”
At the meeting in mid-December, union President Paul Gagnon said the city should be focused on investing in the fire department.
“Everything we’re talking about here has cost,” he said. “A full-service fire department costs money … We should be fully staffed and we expect that commitment from you.”
Any changes recommended by the study would require negotiation, Stephanson told them at the meeting.
“It’s important to remember what got us here in the first place, which is we’re in a business, a public business, that is operating in an environment of reduced revenue,” the mayor said, “and, whether we like it or not, we’re in a situation where we’re forced to make tough choices.”
Stephanson said he’s proud of having voted to bring paramedics to Everett when he was on the City Council in 1982. It was “probably the best decision in my political life that we’ve made, and clearly the results show it’s saved many, many lives,” he said.
Gordon was one of the department’s first paramedics.
Mayor: Complaints are misleading
In a prepared statement issued last week, Stephanson accused the union of giving reporters misleading and inaccurate information, saying its leaders seemed “intent on bringing negative attention to the department and city.”
“Nobody is talking about cutting firefighters,” Stephanson said. “We are talking about how to position the department to best respond to a changing world.”
The union denies misleading anyone. “That’s not our goal,” Gagnon said in an interview. “My mission is to get more staffing for the citizens.”
The day after the New Year’s Eve fire, multiple Seattle TV stations quoted Sittig on the union’s complaints about safety and response times.
Stephanson said he’s not singling out the fire department. In 2014 he asked all of the city’s union employees to start paying 10 percent of their medical insurance costs. All of the other unions have agreed to that, except for the firefighters, city spokeswoman Meghan Pembroke said.
Then there’s the fire chief.
The union last week accused the city of a double standard for keeping Gordon at work while the drinking investigation is underway. Anyone else likely would have been put on paid leave.
Gordon is an at-will employee who reports directly to the mayor. He doesn’t have a contract with the city, and he is not represented by the union.
At the earliest, that investigation might wrap up later this week, Pembroke said.
Firefighter discipline under Gordon has come under scrutiny. Pete Vier, a former fire division chief, was demoted after he was accused of stalking not one, but two women, among other complaints. That was before Vier was convicted of trying to arrange sex with a teen girl in what turned out to be an undercover police sting. Vier retired after his arrest.
Another firefighter, who was found in possession of items that had been taken from a burned-out building, later was promoted and sent to paramedic school after a police investigation didn’t lead to criminal charges.
Last year, after three firefighters got into trouble for dumping a drunk, homeless man on Spencer Island, to get him out of downtown, one received a reprimand letter in his file and two others received a discipline talk. The union appealed, saying the punishment went too far. The grievance has since been withdrawn.
The Vier case was eye-opening for firefighters. The depth of his off-the-job problems surprised managers and the union alike. It was common knowledge that he’d been banned from Providence Regional Medical Center Everett after confronting an ex-girlfriend who worked there. Both sides said they had no idea, however, that he’d also been arrested for domestic violence in Island County. After that news broke, Gordon suggested that the next labor contract should include stricter requirements for when firefighters have to self-report arrests.
It was supposed to be a reform. It went nowhere.
Instead, the union made clear it supported more background checks, Gagnon said.
The city has hired a law firm at $285 an hour to investigate the chief’s behavior at the New Year’s Eve fire.
The three-alarm fire was reported at 7:09 p.m. at the Bluffs apartments along W. Casino Road. A man was found dead inside, and more than a dozen other people were hospitalized. About 150 people were displaced after flames, smoke and water damaged their apartments.
Gordon was not on duty that evening but often responds to major fires in Everett, using his city vehicle.
He assumed command of the fire scene just before 9 p.m. That meant he coordinated different tasks, such as getting sand put down on the lot because layers of ice formed as crews pumped water onto the flames. He reassigned command to someone else about 30 minutes later, according to a recording of the emergency radio traffic that night.
The Herald obtained the recording under state public records laws. There is no obvious indication of intoxication or confusion in Gordon’s voice. He is heard taking control of tasks and giving orders that others follow.
City policy forbids employees from showing up to work under the influence of alcohol.
At one point that night, Gordon volunteered to buy food for the firefighters and people who lost their homes. Some firefighters have questioned his decision to leave the scene.
“It was a cold night and this was something to provide comfort to people who were waiting for the Red Cross shelter to be available,” Pembroke said.
Gordon has been with the Everett Fire Department since 1977. During that time, he has been a firefighter, paramedic, captain, deputy chief of emergency medical services and assistant chief. He was appointed fire chief in 2001.
In the prepared statement, Stephanson said he was grateful for Gordon’s leadership over the years.
“He has proven himself to be a dedicated public servant and I appreciate his integrity and his guidance of the department,” the mayor said.
At the Dec. 16 meeting, Councilwoman Brenda Stonecipher suggested the conversation move forward on the future of the fire department, perhaps based on mutually agreeable performance goals.
In an ideal world, she said, “the fire department and the union would work together on how we’re going to meet those.”
Rikki King: 425-339-3449; firstname.lastname@example.org.