According to representatives from the North Hudson Firefighters Association, 70 percent of the members, or 138 firefighters, recently cast votes of "no confidence" in Chief Edward Flood. Forty voted in favor of Flood, and 20 abstained.
While the vote does not jeopardize Flood's standing in the Regional squad - which covers North Bergen, Weehawken, Union City, and West New York - it is a measure generally taken by union leaders when members of the union feel that management is not doing an acceptable job. Because firefighters are not permitted to strike by law, a vote of "no confidence" is perhaps the most powerful bargaining tool when dealing with contract negotiations.
The vote, which was taken via secret ballot, comes after NHRFR management decided to place a ban on firefighters taking vehicles to local shopping areas while on duty. The moratorium was placed while officials review the circumstances of a May fire in Union City, which elicited complaints from residents who said the NHRFR was slow to respond because the firefighters were at a local supermarket purchasing food.
Flood is trying to keep a stiff upper lip in the entire process. He said that he knew when he took the position as the first chief of the regional in November that it wasn't going to be an easy ride.
"If I expected this to be a walk in the park, I would have been crazy," Flood said. "I'm in a very challenging situation here, introducing change where most are in a comfort zone and resistant to change. My job is to run the department effectively. I can't take it personally. In this position, I have to have very strong shoulders and be able to take it on the chin. This is all part of business."
The NHRFR was put together two years ago by consolidating the squads of several towns. It is run by co-directors Mike DeOrio and Jeff Welz, with Flood, a Weehawken resident, as the uniformed head.
According to the letter sent out to the North Hudson Firefighters' Association, there are 11 reasons listed why they feel Flood has not been doing his job properly.
Complaints against Flood include Flood's handling of the work schedule, including vacation, sick time and personal days, citing that he changed policies on his own.
"We feel like we're not getting any cooperation from the department and Chief Flood is the main focal point," said Don Marino, the vice president of the Firefighters' Association. "They never ask for our opinions, and a lot of things have not gone right. It's a fly-by-night operation right now and that bothers us. Chief Flood is the one that is supposed to make things better for us, but we don't see the issues being addressed. We just felt the vote was something that we needed to do."
Flood denied the charges.
"We had a disjointed sick leave policy," Flood said. "I instituted our own policy to insure that the residents get the type of fire service that they deserve. We had a sick leave abuse problem going on and we had to do something to handle it."
Added Flood, "As for vacation problems, we had seven different contracts with seven different vacation policies. It's almost impossible to manage all of that. We tried to clarify the vacation policy and get the issue resolved." The list also includes a failure to install exhaust systems and transfers of firefighters to different stations, in what was believed to be an attempt to break up unity within the ranks.
"When we regionalized, we inherited an array of equipment problems," Flood said. "With five different towns and a host of different companies, we had some houses that had the diesel exhaust systems and some that did not. Diesel fume removal was part of the capital budget last November. Some of the items need to be repaired and replaced. It's on the list and being dealt with in priority order."
Flood said that there were meetings set up to have a health and safety committee to discuss issues such as diesel fumes, but the firefighter's union failed to attend the meetings.
The head of the union, Glen Michelin, was at odds with Flood earlier this year after Flood ordered a bolted private locker of Michelin's in Union City opened up. Flood said that because regional firefighters moved around, they should not keep their belongings in their old home firehouse. Flood would not comment on whether the vote have stemmed from bad blood between the men.
"I will not respond to comment if it is a personal attack," Flood said. "I can't get involved in that. Like I said, it's part of the business and I'm not taking it personally."
Flood did agree that there is still a lot of hostility within the ranks of the department.
"The regional is still a very young entity," Flood said. "And there has been residual hostility from the beginning. The chief then becomes the lightning rod for the hostility. I am trying to move forward and work with everyone, to insure that we're getting the best fire service possible."
Michelin was not available for comment by press time.
Flood said that there has not been any thought to resigning because of the vote.
"I'm going to move forward and continue with my agenda," Flood said. "There's not even a thought to stepping down. I think the regional is progressively moving forward. The fire department is here to serve the public and I think we're all losing focus on that, with everyone involved with internal bickering. My job is to continue to move the department forward and I believe that I'm doing an excellent job."
However, the move can also be perceived as a negotiation tool, because the Firefighters Association is working toward getting a new contract. The new contract is still in the hands of an arbitrator. Flood did not want to speculate whether the vote was initiated to perhaps speed up the contractual procedure.
Marino said that the negotiations have been ongoing for more than two years.
"They all seem to think it's operating as a new department, but we don't buy that," Marino said. "They don't have the answers for us."
Brian McGorty, the president of the North Hudson Firefighter Officers' Association, declined to comment on the vote, simply stating that the vote "was independent of the Officers' Association."
However, Jeff Welz, the co-director of the NHRFR, thought it was interesting that the Firefighters' Association chose to participate in the "no confidence" vote, but that the Officers' Association did not participate.
Mike DeOrio, the other co-director, didn't understand the motivation behind the vote.
"I don't see what warranted a 'no confidence' vote," DeOrio said. "The vacation policy and sick leave policy were voted on and approved by the union before [Flood] became chief. As far as the diesel fumes, there are no state regulations regarding the removal. Now, all of a sudden, it becomes an issue. Why wasn't this an issue when we weren't regionalized? Why didn't they do this against their former chiefs?"
Added DeOrio: "If the chief was jeopardizing the safety of the firefighters, then I could understand it. But not over vacation schedules and sick leave. Those are contractual issues, not something that should involve the chief. There had to be more than this to warrant a 'no confidence' vote. We stand behind Chief Flood 100 percent. It bothers us that it has become a personal attack against him."
Flood chalked it all up in one easy statement.
"It's a difference of opinion," Flood said. "They have the right to voice their opinion and I have a right to disagree with it."