City Council Greenlights New Assistant Fire Chief Positions

The Beverly Hills City Council unanimously sided with Fire Department management over the union representing firefighters on Jan. 11 in a dispute regarding the creation of Assistant Fire Chief positions and the process of recruiting people into leadership.

Creating the positions allows two largely administrative roles previously shared between battalion chiefs on a rotating basis—Fire Marshal and Training Officer—to become permanent assignments. The move was opposed by the Beverly Hills Firefighters’ Association (BHFA), which argued that adding assistant chiefs to the agency’s hierarchy could make it harder for current BHFA members to move up in the department.

“There are no fiscal implications,” Peter Brown, labor negotiator for the city of Beverly Hills, said during the meeting. “The salary for the administrative battalion chief is the same salary we’d be paying the assistant fire chief. It’s not about saving money. It’s about expertise that the fire chief indicated he wants for his department.”

The Fire Marshal is responsible for fire code enforcement or fire investigations and the Training Officer is tasked with ensuring staff are prepared with the most up-to-date firefighting and rescue techniques. Both positions are essential to public safety but have been difficult to staff because most firefighters prefer to work in the field responding to calls, Fire Chief Greg Barton told the City Council during their regular meeting last week. He added that the people who have filled in in the past have always been “force hires,” rather than volunteers.

Adding the Assistant Chief positions falls squarely within Barton’s authority as head of the department. However, doing so transfers work done by union firefighters to new positions within the BHFA, and so the Beverly Hills Firefighters Association was brought in last July to negotiate the specifics of the change.

The union’s leadership fought the change partly because fire captains previously had the opportunity to cover shifts for battalion chiefs, a practice known as filling position out of class (FPOC). That allowed them to gain valuable on-the-job training in a higher position. But now, Assistant Fire Chiefs would be first in line to step into those roles instead.

“If we don’t have our normal hiring sequence, those opportunities are going to go away,” BHFD Captain and recently elected Firefighters’ Association Vice President Bruno Palmieri said. “These folks who are typically in an office are going to want that opportunity to work that overtime and they’re going to take it when they can, and we see that as a threat.”

Palmieri went on to suggest that the department was not providing enough resources and training for current Beverly Hills firefighters to move up the ranks. He added that union leadership believed BHFD and city officials had always intended to fill the assistant chief positions with outside hires.

Brown and Barton denied those claims, the latter noting at least one leadership class had been held for department employees and more were planned for the future. In addition, firefighters can be reimbursed for enrolling in job-relevant training.

And although the Fire Chief intended to keep the hiring process for Assistant Chiefs open to both inside and outside candidates, current members of the department would be given extra consideration for seniority, and benefit from their working knowledge of the city and its systems.

Representatives for the city and the union met four times before Beverly Hills issued a last, best and final offer on the matter on Sept. 18. The Firefighters’ Association declined, resulting in the appointment of a neutral factfinder who heard both sides on Nov. 27 and then issued a suggested resolution.

Both parties agreed with most of the recommendations of the factfinder. However, union officials took issue with how the new positions would interfere with the practice of FPOC and rejected the deal.

As a result, the matter was sent to the City Council, which was given the choice of either implementing the terms of the last and best offer issued by their negotiator, or to send both parties back to the negotiating table.

Council members made a point to express gratitude for both the day-to-day work of the city’s firefighters as well as the sincerity with which they presented their arguments during the bargaining process. However, they agreed with Barton’s decision to create fixed positions for the Fire Marshal and Training Officer. They also found that it would be better to keep the hiring process open to both inside and outside candidates to ensure the absolute best person for the job is selected.

“There should be promotional opportunities,” Councilmember John Mirisch said. “I think we’ve heard from both chiefs that they agree with that. “But I just think, from an organizational standpoint, one, we always want to have the best person; competition is good. As much as we want to create a family feeling, we don’t want nepotism either.”

Aside from weighing in on the dispute between the BHFD and the Firefighters’ Association, council members also approved a 5.5% bonus for officers assigned to the Beverly Hills Police Department’s Mental Health Evaluation Team. The specialized detail of officers was formed in 2022, and pairs police with a clinical social worker to conduct outreach to people experiencing mental health issues, including homeless people.