Two of Idaho Falls’ top fire officers are retiring in the wake of Duane Nelson’ s appointment as interim fire chief.
They worry the Idaho Falls Fire Department’s command structure will undergo a dramatic overhaul — and that too much emphasis is being placed on classroom education, rather than hands-on experience.
“To me, it’s like it’s a coup,” Division Chief Dorin Howard said.
Today is Howard’s last day at the department after 30 years of service.
Division Chief Brad Pettingill, a 31-year department veteran who also has put in his retirement papers, predicted they won’t be the last to go.
“I totally expect there will be some other individuals retiring very soon,” he said.
Nelson, who was named interim chief May 22, said any plans to restructure the department are in their infancy. No final decisions have been made, he said, although various options are under study. He said the two division chiefs will be missed.
“These guys have served their community extremely well and professionally for 30 years,” he said. “In no way did we ask them to retire or leave.”
The main concern of Howard and Pettingill is a proposal to change the department’s command structure, which features four division chiefs below the fire chief.
Under the proposed change, they said, the division chief positions will be eliminated. There will be a single assistant chief, along with several battalion chiefs who will fill roles similar to those of platoon captains.
“I haven’t seen the documents in writing, but the interim chief told us (of the plans),” Howard said.
But Nelson said there are no formal plans, “just discussions.” He said his top priority as interim chief is the safety of the community. Developing a budget plan to bring to the City Council also is a high priority for Nelson.
“The line personnel are still at the fire stations every day doing their job well, and the community is being protected and served,” Nelson said.
Mayor Rebecca Casper also said there are no formal plans to reorganize the department.
“We have not done anything but toss ideas around,” she said.
The department did operate under a battalion chief model in the mid-1990s, Nelson said. Using battalion chiefs, who work shifts in the department buildings with fire crews, could help to bridge “communication gaps” between firefighters and management.
“All of that will take the mayor’s approval before anything is moved,” Nelson said. “I’m not sure if that organizational change will happen during my interim.”
A new chief
Last week, the Idaho Falls City Council unanimously backed Nelson, a driver/operator who was Casper’s pick for the interim post. Dozens of firefighters were in attendance and applauded Nelson’s appointment.
“Chief Nelson came up through the working ranks and has an impeccable record,” Council President Michael Lehto said.
Nelson took the place of Fire Chief Dean Ellis, who stepped down earlier this month to take a position at Eastern Idaho Technical College.
Until recently, Nelson was the president of Idaho Falls Fire Fighters Local 1565. But he stepped down as union leader ahead of his appointment. He holds a bachelor’s degree in fire service administration from Idaho State University. He also has served 18 years in fire-related positions in the Idaho Army National Guard. He has been with the city department for 17 years.
‘Book smarts’ vs. ‘street smarts’
Howard and Pettingill said the city is putting too much emphasis on “book smarts” rather than “street smarts.”
“I’ve had to pull guys out of fires where there has been an argument on the radio saying, ‘We’ve got this.’ And I say, ‘No. Come on out.’ Then the building caves,” Howard said. “If you don’t have experience reading smoke, buildings and that kind of stuff, you just don’t see those things. You get that through experience … You can see a hundred films and see all of this bad stuff, but it’s not the same as being on the scene.”
Howard and Pettingill, neither of whom hold college degrees, said new job descriptions are being drafted for a battalion chief-based command structure that requires degrees. The new rules do not allow candidates to use on-the-job experience as a substitute.
Without a degree, Howard said, “You’re basically not going to be on the final list.”
Howard said if he had stayed on after a restructuring, he would have had to take a captain-level position, along with a pay cut of $10,000 to $12,000 a year, including the extra pay division chiefs receive for time they spend on-call.
Howard is paid $90,086.88 a year, while Pettingill receives $88,214.88, according to city officials.
Nelson said there are important reasons to require college degrees for top department officers.
“As a manager of a fire department you are running a business,” he said.
Managing the department’s multimillion-dollar budget is one area where college training in areas such as accounting is vital, Nelson said.
“You can’t learn that … in a house fire,” he said.
Casper said she supports seeking candidates with college degrees, although experience remains a vital requirement.
“I want a professional fire department with professionally trained individuals,” she said.
And a college education, she said, is essential to that goal.