Practical Support for the Changing World at Work 
Linda F. Willing
P.O. Box 148
Grand Lake, CO
80447
970-627-3732
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Consider This... July/August 2002 Issue Number 37

Is a monthly electronic newsletter which links current events and issues to the daily challenges faced by fire and emergency services managers. Current topics in the areas of leadership development, workplace diversity, change management, and conflict resolution will be discussed.

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Upcoming Events

Fire-Rescue International August 23-26, 2002. Kansas City, MO.

Fifth Annual Women Chief Fire Officers Fire Service Leadership Conference November 8-10, 2002 at Motorola University, Schaumburg, Illinois. Call 630-990-2390 or email djarvis@interaccess.com for more information.

10th International Conference of Fire Service Women April 23-27, 2003. Denver, CO. Contact info@wfsi.org for more information.

In the News


Divided We Fall: The Challenge of Combination Departments

Volunteer firefighters from the Derby Fire Company have been staying away from the fire station, and this is bad news for residents of their district in southern New Jersey. Adequate emergency response depends on the participation of the volunteers, who serve alongside a handful of paid firefighters and EMT's. Volunteers say that they are staying away because they feel disrespected by the paid members of the fire company. Paid firefighters say the volunteers are poorly trained and do not maintain their certifications. Most observers agree: the problems are mostly due to a clash of personalities and cultures.

Problems between paid and volunteer firefighters are nothing new. Although they are all doing the same job at emergency scenes, paid and volunteer departments often have significantly different histories, cultures, and ways of doing business. A few examples of these differences include the fact that most paid firefighters are unionized while volunteers are not, volunteers often elect officers vs. a promotional testing process for paid firefighters, and volunteers are usually members of their service communities, while paid firefighters may live far from their workplace.

And then there is the issue of pay and hours. Paid firefighters come to work at designated times and get paid whether they respond to emergency calls or not. Volunteers get paid on call, if at all, and choose whether to respond to any given emergency.

But the Derby Fire District problems underscore perhaps the most challenging differences between paid and volunteer firefighters: those of culture and perception. The volunteers say that they get no respect and that they are not listened to, but the paid staff says that they are just trying to enforce professional standards. The volunteers see the paid people as lazy and spoiled; the paid people see the volunteers as out of touch and of marginal use to real emergency response. The result is discord and diminished response, and the ones who are hurt most are the citizens who receive the service.

Many districts do not have the population base or the money to support a fully paid firefighting staff. Some districts have a strong tradition of volunteerism that they wouldn't disrupt even if they had the resources to hire paid firefighters. Volunteer and combined paid/volunteer departments are a fact of life, and it is critical that leaders find ways to make this arrangement work. To do so, leaders need skills in communications, mediation, facilitation, and forming diverse teams.

Leading an organization with a diversity of outlooks and opinions is challenging, but it is the reality of leadership for just about everyone these days. All members must be able to work together toward common goals, or all will fail. United we stand, divided we fall: it's as simple as that.

Source: Burlington County Times, April 17, 2002

News Brief

The Supreme Court recently refused to rule on a case that questioned whether older workers have similar rights as minorities in discrimination claims. The dismissal was a defeat for the 120 former Florida Power Corp. workers who claimed that their firing violated the ADA. However, some analysts feel that the court's refusal to decide the case was a better outcome than an outright denial of rights under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. All observers expect a similar case to come to the court in the future.

Source: Associated Press, April 1, 2002


Sexual Harassment Update

Personal Morals vs. Professional Requirements

David Virt was a truck driver who was often assigned to do "sleeper runs": an overnight route with another driver in a truck that had a sleeping unit in the back. Drivers take turns at the wheel or sleeping, in order to complete the delivery in the shortest possible time. The system of assigning routes required that Mr. Virt take sleeper runs when offered; to refuse the assignment was a violation of the seniority system.

In 1995, Mr. Virt was dispatched on a sleeper run with a woman. He refused to take the assignment, saying that spending the night in a truck with a woman violated his born-again Christian beliefs. Another driver agreed to take the run for Virt, but there were complaints to the union that this trade violated the seniority system. Mr. Virt was told that he would have to take all assigned runs as given in the future, regardless of who he was partnered with.

In 1997, Mr. Virt again refused to take a sleeper run with a woman, and was fired as a result. The company stated its reasons for the dismissal as: "[Virt's] refusal to ride with qualified females on sleeper runs, as well as his request to not be asked to ride on sleeper runs with females in the future forced the company to discriminate and violate the seniority rights of [Virt's] fellow employees."

After negotiations, Mr. Virt was rehired with disciplinary action, but later fired again for other causes. In the interim, he filed a complaint with the EEOC for religious discrimination. Mr. Virt lost that case, and his subsequent appeal.

In its decision, the court cited several similar cases. One precedent stated: "Employers must accommodate religious belief unless they can demonstrate that they cannot due to undue hardship on the conduct of employee business. To require an employer to bear more than minimal cost in order to accommodate religious belief is undue hardship." That decision went on to say, "The employer does not actually have to experience the hardship in order for the hardship to be recognized as too great to be reasonable."

In a related case, the appeals court upheld the firing of an employee who refused to work with women for religious reasons. The company had informed him that "working with women was part of his job, and he would have to work with women or would not receive any [work] assignments."

These cases make clear the limits of claims for religious accommodation, especially when such claims constitute discrimination against other individuals or groups. Some firefighters have claimed religious grounds when asking not to be assigned with women in the fire station, and some fire departments have thought it to be a good idea to accommodate them. These recent legal decisions indicate that those fire departments better think again.

Sources:

David Virts v. Consolidated Freightways Corp of Delaware, 6th Circuit, 00-5501

Weber v. Roadway Express Inc., 5th Circuit (2000)

Cooper v. Oak Rubber Co. 6th Circuit (1994)


Linda F. Willing, 2002

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