Practical Support for the Changing World at Work 
Linda F. Willing
P.O. Box 148
Grand Lake, CO
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Consider This... November/December 2002 Issue Number 41

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

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

FDIC West, February 9-13, 2003. Sacramento, CA.

In the News

Asking for Help 

In the wake of a devastating fire, a fire chief has come under harsh criticism. It is not his firefighting strategy that is being derided, nor his commitment to service or even the results of the firefighting effort. The source of the criticism is this: the chief refused to accept help when it was offered. 

On August 19, a large fire swept through the development known as Santana Row in San Jose, California. While the fire was still burning, the department got an offer to help investigate the fire from the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF). The fire department declined the offer, believing that they had the internal resources to handle the investigation themselves. To date, the cause of the fire remains undetermined. 

There is no guarantee that assistance from the ATF would have led to a different outcome. What has brought criticism to the department is the fact that they refused to accept help when it was offered, and apparently needed.  

Emergency service groups refusing help from others is not unique to this situation. Reluctance to ask for help or cooperate with other agencies played a role in the outcome of events on 9/11 in New York City. More recently, challenges with interagency response were a key factor in response to the sniper attacks in the Washington DC area.. 

Reluctance to ask for help is a traditional value within the emergency services. Emergency responders are quick to help others, but asking for help is seen as a sign of weakness. This is a cultural norm learned early in rookie school and often carried on throughout an entire career. Asking for help lifting something indicates physical weakness. Asking for extra engines to respond to an incident says that you can't handle the situation yourself. Asking for help with personnel issues shows that you are not really in charge.  

It is somewhat ironic in a profession as team oriented as the fire service, that asking for help should be taboo. Indeed, helping one another at an individual level is often valued and practiced. It is the organizational level where things get complicated. Fire departments have a long history of seeing themselves as autonomous, even as being in competition with others. 

Those days are over. As the recent sniper emergency proved, it is impossible for one agency to go it alone. According to the New York Times:

In most large criminal investigations, local authorities are usually reluctant to ask for help from federal law enforcement agencies; it is seen as bad for morale, and many local police officers resent the FBI.

Quietly, Chief Moose had asked for federal assistance; even as some in his department wanted to conduct the investigation without outside aid.

"Local law enforcement asks for help from federal law enforcement with a lot of hesitation," Chief Moose said. "We've got to get past it. Hopefully, there is a lesson here that it can work. I might still have people dying because I could not resolve my issues with the feds." 

Giving help is how firefighters and other emergency responders define themselves. Asking for help is something they are hesitant to do. But as Chief Moose said, we've got to get over that, or people could die. It's as simple as that. 

Source: The New York Times, October 27, 2002
           The San Jose Mercury News, October 6, 2002

News Brief

California has become the first state in the country to enact a comprehensive paid family leave program for workers. "I don't want Californians to choose between being good parents and good employees," said Governor Gray Davis at the recent signing ceremony. The bill has been denounced by some business groups, including the California Chamber of Commerce, as being "one of the most economically damaging pieces of legislation on the governor's desk."
Source: Los Angeles Times, September 24, 2002

New York City police and fire commissioners recently told City Council members that common sense and personal interaction, not a formal command system, should guide police officers' and firefighters' responses to major emergencies. "Police personnel are not qualified to direct fire personnel in carrying out their mission and neither are fire personnel qualified to direct police. I don't think that type of system is appropriate for New York City," said Police Commissioner Ray Kelly. 

Source: Associated Press, October 8, 2002. 

Sexual Harassment Update

When Winning is Losing 

A police officer in Cook County, Illinois recently won a sex discrimination and harassment lawsuit against her employer. She was awarded $300,000 in damages and her attorney received almost $1 million in fees and costs. This was good news for the woman, until she got her tax bill. That's when she found out that she would not only forfeit her entire award to pay taxes on the amount, but she would also end up owing the IRS around $99,000. 

This illogical situation was caused by 1996 amendments to the federal tax laws that make awards for some nonphysical injuries taxable. In many states, lawyers' fees are considered to belong to the plaintiff and are therefore taxable to the individual who won the lawsuit. The attorneys who receive the fees are also responsible for paying taxes on them, thus resulting in a condition of double taxation on the same amount. This kind of tax liability mostly results from employment discrimination and civil rights cases. 

The current tax situation is likely to have a chilling effect on people's willingness to file lawsuits for discrimination and harassment. "I have to advise a person coming to me that it is entirely possible not only that any award they receive will go to the Internal Revenue Service but that they will owe the Internal Revenue Service money," said Monica McFadden, the attorney in the case.  

"The result in these cases is unintended," said Stephen Cohen, a law professor at Georgetown University. "Congress should amend the law to allow a deduction in full for the attorney's fees." Legislation is currently pending in Congress which would address this issue. 

Source: The New York Times, August 11, 2002.

Linda F. Willing, 2002

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