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Buffalo firefighters vote no-confidence in Commissioner Garnell Whitfield

Buffalo firefighters have voted no-confidence in their boss, Fire Commissioner Garnell W. Whitfield Jr., a further indication of the soured relations between Local 282 members and the Fire Department’s top official.

More than half of the department’s 700 members participated in the vote, and about 85 percent supported the no-confidence motion, according to union president Thomas Barrett.

“It’s a combination of everything,” he said. “He’s been commissioner for six years. He’s lost control of his department. Our membership realizes this commissioner is unable to lead the department. We just don’t think he can right the ship.”

Whitfield previously said he knew the vote was planned, and attributed it to union unhappiness over steps he’s taking to modernize the Fire Department.

“While it’s important to listen to our employees as we constantly look for ways to improve every operation of city government, Garnell Whitfield is the fire commissioner,” Michael J. DeGeorge, a spokesman for Mayor Byron W. Brown said Monday in response to the no-confidence vote taken Friday evening.

“It’s well known that the administration is looking to make reforms to Fire Department procedures,” DeGeorge added, referring to an audit Whitfield recently requested of payroll operations in Fire Headquarters.

But Barrett said the vote was in response to things not getting done in the Fire Department under Whitfield.

“It’s everything from EMS to training to equipment,” Barrett said.

Many firefighters, for example, don’t have their required Emergency Medical Service certification, Barrett said. Some 75 percent of firefighters’s bailout systems – the personal escape equipment firefighters carry into a fire – don’t work properly, he said.

The union president also cited the findings of the recent city comptroller’s audit that Whitfield requested. The audit found overtime paperwork procedures in Fire Headquarters so shoddy it was impossible to tell if civilian payrolls are correct. Barrett also cited what the union views as Whitfield’s refusal to comply with a contract agreement, and follow-up arbitration, requiring captains be assigned to oversee civilian dispatchers in the Fire Alarm office. The captains were finally assigned, four months after the arbitration award, Barrett said, when a contempt of court charge was filed.

Whitfield normally has two deputy commissioners, but both resigned the posts in recent months, one in November, and the other in January. Neither has been replaced.

Barrett sympathized with Whitfield’s current situation. “It’s tough for one person to do that job,” he said.

But, Barrett said, the problems in the department under Whitfield existed well before the current deputy openings became vacant.

Barrett said he also discussed the no-confidence vote with the mayor. “He said the management team is looking to get the deputies positions filled,” Barrett said.

Barrett said he was also told the department is in the process of trying to fix the problems with the bailout gear.

Barrett added that, despite the no-confidence vote, he likes Whitfield as a person. “This is the bad part,” Barrett said. “I really genuinely like the man. I really do. But you have to get things done.”