Chief Fire Officer Leslie Fontenelle breaks his silence on the current Fire Service protest action
I am at a loss as to why I am the subject of such public bitterness and aggression. I have been out of my office for the last three weeks from August 25th 2014 until now; so what has caused this sudden spate of reaction?
The situation now affecting the Fire Service stems from what I see as an absence of reason or reasonableness. Furthermore, the matters being pursued are in no way related to welfare. No personal rights are being threatened or infringed.
Contrary to what is being aired in public media, it’s not that the government has not responded to the situation, but that it has not responded in the way the Fire Service Association thinks that it should and so The Association is using the strategy of protest – withdrawing their services to force the government to give them what they want. This is about the sixth time they have gone on strike for the same issue – demanding that the government implement the recommendations of the Commission of Inquiry. But attempting to force the administration to act in a manner favourable by using aggressive means is completely contrary to the rules of natural justice.
The only recommendation not yet implemented is for the Chief Fire Officer to be placed on contract and that is what is being protested. Are they aware that to be fair, such a condition must be applied to every succeeding Fire Chief? A protest is usually undertaken to clamour for some public good that would benefit a vast majority of the populace.
The Current Protest
Consider it in the context of this analogy: A parent walks into a convenience shop with a toddler. The toddler asks for a new toy and the parent says, no we don’t have money for any toys. The toddler begins to throw a tantrum. After several attempts to coax that child the parent resorts to a more stern composure. The child cannot appreciate the mother’s full justification for denying its request and feels compelled to embarrass the parent into compliance. Passersby, not knowing fully what has transpired may believe the parent is being unfair and cruel and should give the child what he or she wants instead of correcting the child.
The Association has been told time and time again that the recommendations of the Commission of Inquiry are not all implementable and that the government will not take actions which are improper just because they are in the recommendations. So instead of allowing the government to be responsible for determining the outcome of the Inquiry, the Association has been stirring up its members and using protest action to, as it were, force the hand of the government to undertake an action pleasing to their agenda.
The obvious question is, how will the recommendation that the Chief be put on contract address the issues affecting the organization? These include
• Limitation of man power resources and adequate ranks
• Elimination/reduction of excess working hours
• Poor conditions at Fire Stations – improvement of station conditions
• Lack of adequate budget allocations for maintenance of appliances and equipment
• Lack of a proper system of promotion to reduce/remove dependence on discretion
• Improvement in the system of relocation of officers, to ensure transparency and fairness
• Absence of a mechanism to help personnel identify and report issues of sexual harassment without fear of persecution
These are the areas that the Inquiry failed to address or make recommendations for. One would think that these are the area, which the Association would be clamouring to have addressed. However, for several months, they have been rehashing over and over in public media the matters presented to the Commission of Inquiry, in the hope of getting public response to the extent the government would grant them their wish in order to quiet the public. Any right thinking person would easily see that this does not make sense.
Any succeeding Fire Chief, without these mechanisms in place will likely fail. The Association has to help its members understand the value of their jobs. From the way this episode has played out, it is obvious that it was never about obtaining solutions in the first place. The government has appointed a Human Resource Officer to the department from 2011; I am not aware that the Association has sought audience with the HR officer or brought forward any complaints to that office.
The Association has been asked to make recommendations for a promotions policy for the department along with recommendations for a relocation policy. I am not aware that they have responded to any of these.It appears that the members of the Fire Service want to do as they please without going through any established channel or following due process.
Those who are quick to come on public media in “support of the Firemen”, is that what they wish to support?
The Locked Office
The Association was given office space at the Administrations block when the department moved into the current location on Manoel Street in 2008. Prior to this it had no “resting place”. The Association Chairman was written to explaining that there was need to relocate the office space the Association currently occupies, and was advised of where the office would be relocated. He was given two months to cooperate with this request. A senior officer was also assigned to work along with him in that regard. He never responded to the written request although written to on three separate occasions and told the officer plainly that he was simply not going to cooperate.
Now if the request is unreasonable or wrong and you wish to have redress, could you not raise the matter with the authorities at the Ministry of Home Affairs or even to the court for that matter? Instead he has taken to the media to arouse public emotion. Before proceeding further with the matter, I sought advice from the ministry and also informed the chairman in writing that if he failed to comply, such action would be taken. On the day the lock was to be changed, the Association Chairman was personally informed by his Station Officer but he failed to make himself available.
The Chairman has to realize that the Chief has administrative responsibility over the Fire Service and his instructions must be complied with until a process of redress is completed. If that kind of behaviour is not addressed, no administrator in the Fire Service will succeed. The Association so far has failed to comply with grievance procedure and is acting in a manner contrary to good industrial relations.
The Association Executive non bona fide
I have heard the words being used that the Association is null and void. These are not my words. Those who have said so certainly do not have their facts right. The current executive body is non bona fide because its term of office has expired. The re-election of officers for the Association’s executive body was due to take place in May this year 2014.Candidates are selected by self-nomination and the announcement was made requesting application for positions on the executive. It took several weeks and about three circulars before the 15 names needed could be received – the executive is made up of 14 persons.Some had to be coaxed repeatedly before they agreed.
The rules require that the Chief Fire Officer preside over the proceedings of the elections. The date for the elections was broadcasted and names of candidates displayed through general circular. When it came time to count the ballots, the conditions requiring that financial statements and operating statements be made available for the information of all was not met and has still not been done. At a subsequent meeting made for counting the ballots the Chairman and former secretary gave a commitment that the reports would be make available by a certain date following which the elections would continue. Still they refused to produce the reports. The members were informed that as a result of the Association’s constant refusal to produce the required reports the re-election of the executive could not be completed.The existing committee is therefore non bona fide until a new executive body is elected.
I understand and appreciate the role of the Association especially at this time; however, there are rules which must be followed in conducting the affairs of such an important entity. That is the only way things will be done in order. Until the rules are changed, they are to be complied with. I think every reasonable person can agree with that.
Incident at Dennery Fire Station
The situation which occurred at the Dennery Fire Station in which the Station Officer there acted in an insubordinate manner to the Deputy Chief Fire Officer, causes one to wonder where the discipline in the Fire Service has gone. It is obviously in shambles despite my efforts. When the Fire Service had an internal system of discipline, proper conduct was upheld.Members somehow have gotten the idea that because the authority of the Fire Chief has been reduced; limited to writing complaints to the Public Service Commission (which take quite some time to be processed) that they can basically be insubordinate and disrespectful to senior officers, disobey orders and absent themselves from work with impunity.
Because of these ongoing attacks on the office of the Fire Chief by the Association, the level of discipline in the department has plunged to an all time low. Even a station officer whose responsibility it is to uphold discipline at his station feels at liberty to display disrespect to the Deputy. The department has been plagued by constant low turnout at stations during the weekends and during festivals. Personnel behave as if they have a right to call in sick regardless of how many persons are at work because they have been given this privilege of 48hrs before producing a medical certificate.Firemen get two days off after working two day shifts and two night shifts.
There is an abject lack of regard for duty in the Fire Service. Persons appearing for duty and on parade in an unkempt manner, refusing to shave and clean their shoes or just plainly absenting themselves from parades and other assigned duties without excuse. Fire officers no longer have appreciation for the seriousness of what they do and the consequences that can result if they cannot render the services. Is that what the members of the public are standing up with them for? Matters are out of hand, that in spite of the fact that the Association’s status is in transition, someone can call the staff to a meeting at a so called natural location and they all can leave their jobs for the entire day to attend to this meeting without any authorization. In which country is that possible?
Where it All Began
Saint Lucians should not forget where this all started. It was after fireman Felix was issued with a letter of transfer to the Gros Islet Fire Station with which he refused to comply. He eventually did but returned to the Castries Fire Station on his own volition and refused to return. He later submitted a lawyer’s letter stating that the department was infringing on his rights by not providing him with transportation to Gros Islet. This prompted an Investigation for which a special panel was set up comprising three Deputy Permanent Secretaries.
Much of that report was devoted to the issue of Mr Felix not getting due benefits related to his transfer. This was not upheld. There was also the complaint of one female officer not being promoted and another’s (her sister’s) qualifications being overstated to facilitate her. These formed the main crux of that report.
When the report was released Mr Felix, in the Capacity of Chairman of the Association, publicly stated that they had no confidence in the report because the panel did not consist of a lawyer and so they pressed for an Inquiry. The government again acquiesces to their request.The issues have snowballed from a personal matter to creating public confusion about what is at stake. It began with an individual challenging authority, refusing to comply with instructions and using the position of Chairman of the Association (rallying support of his colleagues) to retaliate because he refuses to be corrected.So those who are hasty to get on board and join their voices may just be facilitating a personal agenda.
The current situation supports the fact that the Association is acting on the notion that it can have its own way by continuing to arbitrarily withdraw labour and stirring up public emotion by continuously maligning the Chief Fire Officer in public media. However, the government cannot afford to have a system where an individual or individuals can literally act on their own and hold the country to ransom by compromising government services in order to pursue their own agenda at any cost. This represents a state of gross rebellion/lawlessness – a literal absence of reason.It will take a complete revamping of the legal framework governing the department in order for this weakness in the system to be corrected.Of course, people need to stand up for their rights, but it must be determined what right is being threatened in the circumstances.
The Chairman of the Fire Service Association and his cohorts have been out of line, dealing with matters not relevant to welfare.What they are trying to influence lies squarely with Ministerial authorities, and the Public Service Commission.If these bow to pressures they are setting a very wrong precedent which will not be easily corrected.
The Fire Service celebrates its 40th anniversary on September 14th. It is sad that we must face these unwarranted circumstances at such a time. However, I want to use this opportunity to call upon all right thinking Saint Lucians to pray for the Fire Service so that good sense will prevail and reason will take precedence. Pray for the many men and women who seem not to value or appreciate the important role which they play in providing safety services to our people.Encourage your family and friends to take their job more seriously and do their best to deliver the service for which they have been employed. I also want to thank the many officers and volunteers who so far have been level headed and remained on the job in order to render valuable service to our people.May the Lord God put a hand in this matter and bring it to a peaceful end.