Detroit is poised to eliminate seniority as the sole consideration for firefighter promotions, sparking a controversy over how best to establish leadership within the department.

The move could overhaul a decades-old promotion formula by adding merit to the mix.

City officials proposed the change during ongoing contract negotiations with the fire department union, which represents some 1,200 firefighters. The union’s contract expired June 30.

The initiative is part of Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr’s efforts to modernize city work rules that he says have contributed to bureaucracy and inefficiency in city operations. Negotiations toward that end have been intensifying this summer.

Supporters of the proposal say the move recognizes a broad base of criteria, including experience, education and work record. It also would bring Detroit into line with policies in other cities across the country.

But supporters of seniority-only promotions say there’s no other way to learn how to lead than by doing the job.

Reginald Amos, a retired deputy chief in the Detroit Fire Department, said ending seniority “is a bad deal” based on the history of fire service in America. Amos points to firefighting as a blue-collar job that has been all about seniority.

“All (the city) had to do is enhance the current system with education (requirements).The bottom line is it’s a bad idea to change the system,” he said.

Emergency Manager spokesman Bill Nowling referred the issue to Mayor Mike Duggan’s office, citing his control over the fire department. John Roach, a spokesman for Mayor Mike Duggan, declined to comment, saying negotiations on the issue are ongoing.

Political analyst Eric Foster said he believes the change would be a move in the right direction. Administrators need skills in other areas — such as human resources, finances and technology — as well as know how to fight fires, he said. That hasn’t always happened in the Detroit Fire Department, he said.

“The reality is you cannot just promote people based on how long they have been there,” said Foster of West Bloomfield-based LB3 Management. “That doesn’t directly correlate to having the skill set for the position they are going for. It’s more operational effectiveness and efficiencies.”

Basing promotions on testing and education is commonplace in departments throughout the country, including Indianapolis, Chicago, San Francisco, Atlanta and Tulsa. Locally, Southfield and Grand Rapids also use more than just seniority as the measure for promotions.

City officials have pushed for work rule changes within the fire and police departments as the bankrupt city seeks to overhaul operations. They say modernizing promotion rules will result in more efficiencies because they can hire the most talented firefighters.

“Strict seniority promotions” were cited as an impediment to the department’s progress in a city status report provided to the Financial Advisory Board. City officials maintain the department can attract a higher caliber of candidates for administrative roles if seniority is not the sole criteria.

City police officers have used testing as a requirement for promotions for nearly two decades.

Firefighter Union President Jeff Pegg also did not return phone calls from The Detroit News seeking comment. But in a message to members dated Aug. 7, the firefighter union said it was hoping to finalize terms soon on a new five-year contract.

The note said bankruptcy court has ordered negotiations to remain confidential, but the union is negotiating on major sticking points that “ensure the integrity of our work and livelihood, our safety, our pensions, and our health care.”

“Under normal circumstances, these are difficult issues to resolve,” the memo to members read. “Stated plainly, negotiating under P.A. 436 is like negotiating with a hammer hanging over your head,” the note said.

Under Public Act 436, Orr can impose the contract terms on the union.

Former union president Dan McNamara calls seniority rules “a life saver.” McNamara, who was the union president for nearly a decade, said there’s got to be a balance between the work in the field and what’s learned in the classroom.

He hopes the current proposal is evaluated more before it’s finally implemented.

“We always felt if you earned the education, everything else came from doing the work in the field. That’s why we protected the seniority system,” said McNamara, who served as union president from 2002 until last December. “We can’t measure what we do all the time on paper.

“For what we do, a lot of the stuff is ingrained from being a firefighter. What they did is they missed the boat to see why we did it the way we did it. You can’t disregard our seniority system.”

After years of fighting to get near the top, Amos said the proposed changes could be used to rid the department of high-ranking black firefighters. While others understood the necessity of getting educated, some black firefighters did not take advantage of it.

That will leave some behind who do not have a college education.

“They are masking racism behind education,” said Amos. “What people in Detroit are going to see is when this takes effect, the Detroit Fire Department is going to slip back to the way it was in the ’50s and ’60s.”

Steve Richardson, president of the Michigan State Firemen’s Association, said he’s advocating for input from Detroit firefighters because they often know what’s best.

Still, Richardson said he still supports a seniority promotional system.

“I have heard of other departments doing it that way,” Richardson said. “Your most experienced people you would like to have them at the top. That system would work. Not always, but for the most part.”

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