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Vashon fire department to implement anti-harassment training

Vashon Island Fire & Rescue will implement a nine-month anti-harassment and anti-bullying program that fire chief Hank Lipe said will enable the department "to make wholesale changes in the way we do business with our employees."

The program, approved by the fire department's five-member commission Tuesday night, will also include the establishment of a confidential hot line for people to register complaints; a review and redesign of the department's code of conduct and discipline policies; investigations into complaints of misconduct or discrimination; and the design of a new-hire selection process premised on existing employment law.

"We spend thousands and thousands and thousands of dollars to make sure our tools are ready to go," Lipe told commissioners at the Tuesday night meeting. "Human resources are no different. We need to partner with the experts."

The program, developed by Janice Corbin, a partner in Sound Employment Solutions, will cost $16,700. Lipe said he hopes to keep Corbin on retainer after she completes the nine-month program for the department, turning to her to provide additional training or advice on an as-needed basis.

"We're going to invest a lot of time and money upfront; we're going to rebuild the infrastructure," he said. "As time goes on and the need diminishes, we'll get down to preventative maintenance."

The decision to implement the new program, approved unanimously and with scant discussion by commissioners, comes one month after a King County Superior Court judge ruled that volunteer firefighter and EMT Lanora Hackett was harassed, treated with hostility and wrongfully denied a job at the fire department.

Hackett was awarded $150,000 for emotional distress and six years' worth of pay. The commissioners have not yet decided if they'll appeal the decision; they still have several weeks before they need to make that decision, said Neal Philip, who chairs the five-member commission.

Philip, meanwhile, praised Lipe for moving forward quickly and decisively on a program to try to alter a culture that has tripped up the department several times over the years. The commissioners recently approved a zero-tolerance policy for gender-based discrimination or hostility. Philip said that Lipe's move to recruit the services of a human resources professional shows the department is walking its talk.

"There's a feeling in the community that we're not doing enough," Philip said. "But things are starting to happen. Hiring Janice is the kind of step we have to take to show the community we're serious about this."

Philip, a former volunteer, added that the department will likely benefit greatly from Corbin's training and expertise.

"I think it's something that's long overdue in the department," he said.

Corbin, who outlined the services she plans to provide VIFR at Tuesday's meeting, has extensive experience in human resources and in working with uniformed departments. She worked for several years as the human resources director for the Seattle Police Department. Since setting up her private consulting firm eight years ago, she's worked with countless fire departments, she said. Her husband is a firefighter, she added.

Corbin said her program will be very straightforward: She'll let employees know what their legal responsibilities are, what's considered appropriate and what the consequences are for failing to comply.

"The concept I use is respect," she added. "We all want to be respected. And you'll be held accountable if you're disrespectful. That's the focus of it."

The hotline, she added, was included in her suite of services in part because it was important to Lipe to provide that kind of protection and anonymity to employees and volunteers. "It's to give people a sense of comfort and the ability to talk to someone outside of the department," Corbin said.

Corbin said she does not know the department well or the details of the lawsuit. But after Lipe contacted her, she agreed to work with him in part because she felt he was sincerely committed to altering the department's culture, she said.

"I've talked to Hank a couple of times about it. I wanted to make sure he and I were on the same page ... because I didn't want to have to fight with him. I think he's an honorable man. ... I applaud him for doing this."

Lipe said hiring Corbin is the second move he's made since coming to the department six months ago to try to provide independent professional services. The other move was hiring Peter Lake, a Vashon-based CPA, to oversee some of the department's financial issues.

The fire department he headed in Hampton, N.H., was part of the town government, and he reported to the town manager. The town had a legal team that could step in to help address human resource issues and a financial manager who provided independent oversight of the fire department's books. At the Vashon fire department, those services either haven't existed or have been housed within the department, he said.

"I'm not an HR specialist. I'm a fire chief," he said. "Let's get the problem to the professional."

Asked if these efforts suggest that the judge ruled correctly in the Hackett lawsuit, Lipe added, "We got a decision from a judge; the judge says there was a violation. The buck stops with me. ... Am I responding to the judge's decision? Absolutely."

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