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Portland Fire & Rescue does not have a coherent accountability system

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Station 1 serves downtown Portland and houses the administrative offices
We found that the Portland Fire Bureau has not invested the time, attention, and resources needed for a coherent employee accountability system. We make recommendations for training and complaint, investigation, and discipline processes to help ensure that the Bureau achieves its diversity goals.
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City residents depend on Portland Fire & Rescue when they face unimaginable emergencies. The Bureau has prioritized this essential role by preparing firefighters to deal with various crises and ensuring that stations are always available to respond. It has not showed the same commitment to creating and sustaining an accountable, professional workplace.

The Bureau has more than 700 employees, most of whom are male and white. The Bureau says it wants to diversify its staff and better reflect the community it serves. In 2019, the City’s first Black female firefighter was promoted to Fire Chief, and three of the Bureau’s five divisions are now led by women. The Bureau has recently taken steps to diversify through changes to recruitment and hiring. But a 2018 workplace study found that some women and people of color in the Bureau feel alienated in the white-male dominant environment, and the family-like culture allows some employees to behave unprofessionally in the workplace.

This audit found that the Bureau has not invested the time, attention, and resources needed to improve its culture and achieve its goal to diversify. The Bureau does not have a coherent employee accountability system, which is an essential component of any healthy workplace. It has not offered recommended training on interpersonal communication and conflict resolution or ensured that employees attend the City’s mandatory training on prohibited conduct. The Bureau also has not established clear and well-communicated processes for filing complaints, conducting investigations, and imposing discipline that employees trust.

We make recommendations to Fire & Rescue and the Bureau of Human Resources to develop the Fire Bureau’s employee accountability system and improve its workplace culture. 
 

Fire Bureau’s unique work requirements influence its culture

The Fire Bureau’s mission is to protect communities through a combination of prevention and community health programs and responses to fire, medical, natural disaster, and other emergencies.

The Bureau employs more than 700 employees. In 2021, 89 percent were male, and 79 percent were white. More than 30 fire stations operate around the clock across Portland, staffed by small teams of firefighters who work 24-hour shifts every third day. During their shifts, the teams respond to emergencies, maintain equipment and the station, eat meals, train, exercise, and pass free time. Firefighters generally spend most of their 24-hour shift together, except when they retire to their own rooms to sleep.

The Bureau’s culture is shaped by employees living together and protecting each other’s lives in dangerous situations. Employees described their workplace as a family, and some said they maintain close friendships with co-workers outside of work. Some employees said the close-knit culture was the best part of the job, and that firefighters look out for one another.
 

Some employees may not feel part of the family

There are also downsides to thinking of co-workers as family instead of professional colleagues. A 2018 Portland State University study found that the Bureau’s culture made some employees – particularly women and people of color – feel alienated or pressured to conform. This may hinder the Bureau’s goal to diversify its workforce.

The study also found the close-knit environment at stations had fostered conflict and unprofessional behavior, including offensive jokes and comments related to sex, race, gender, sexual orientation, and nationality. We found that 43 percent of investigations into Fire Bureau employees between 2018 and 2020 involved allegations of unprofessional behavior, including discourteous, offensive, racist, or harassing conduct. A largely homogenous workforce and decentralized work sites are risk factors for harassment, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

The Bureau’s culture and tight station quarters may also make it hard to hold people accountable for misconduct. It may be easier to ignore inappropriate behavior than rock the boat by speaking up. Reporting bad behavior may also be perceived as risky. Some employees said they do not speak up because they fear retaliation.

An additional challenge for accountability is that firefighters often work at the Bureau for their entire careers, and most supervisors and managers have risen through the ranks alongside staff they now supervise. These relationships – and the loyalty they create – may make it difficult for managers to be objective when addressing misconduct.
 

Bureau does not have a coherent employee accountability system

An employee accountability system that identifies and addresses problematic behavior is an essential component of any healthy workplace. An accountability system should:

  • Set clear expectations for work requirements and employee conduct and ensure that employees are trained to meet them

  • Offer guidance and tools for filing complaints so that employees and community members understand where to go with concerns

  • Direct managers what to do if they receive a complaint

  • Document and analyze complaints to identify patterns of risky behavior and where training or policy clarification are needed

  • Conduct consistent, impartial, and timely investigations into possible misconduct

  • Impose predictable, fair, and prompt discipline for misconduct.

Employees must trust the accountability system for it to work. If employees think their complaints will be ignored, fear retaliation for speaking up, see no consequences for breaking rules, or believe the system is not fair, workplace morale suffers, and higher turnover is likely. A weak accountability system may also hinder the Bureau’s efforts to recruit more women and people of color.

We found that the Fire Bureau did not have a coherent accountability system that employees understood and trusted. It neglected trainings on expectations for workplace conduct. Its complaint process was unclear, so employees may not have known how to report misconduct, and supervisors may have handled complaints inconsistently. No one analyzed available complaint information to identify trends and prevent future workplace problems. Some employees viewed investigations as inconsistent, unfair, and slow. The Bureau’s discipline process was also not predictable or transparent, causing employees to believe that discipline was not fair.
 

Bureau neglected training to improve workplace culture
Consistent with its mission to promote community safety, the Fire Bureau prioritized training on operations – the things firefighters may have to do to protect life, property, and the environment – but neglected training that could improve the Bureau’s professional workplace and help advance the Bureau’s goal to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Bureau managers have issued memos to staff on expectations for workplace conduct. But employees still had not received training on interpersonal communication, conflict resolution, and team development, as recommended in the 2018 Portland State University study. Bureau managers said they offered stress management training as recommended.

Many employees had not completed refresher training required of all City employees on prohibited harassment, discrimination, racism, and retaliation in the workplace, according to management and the Bureau of Human Resources at the end of 2021. We could not verify the completion rate, because Human Resources’ training records were not accurate, and the Fire Bureau did not track them.

Fire Bureau managers pointed to various barriers to workplace trainings. They said in-person trainings are challenging to schedule because stations must be available for emergencies, and the Bureau has not budgeted for overtime needed to backfill positions while crews are in training. Managers said other challenges included work schedules, technical issues with online trainings, leadership turnover, and extra workload related to Covid-19 and wildfire events.
 

Bureau offered little guidance and few options for filing complaints
The Fire Bureau did not communicate clearly how its existing complaint and investigative process was supposed to work. It had no information on its website explaining how employees or community members could make a complaint, except if it was specific to Portland Street Response. Two internal documents described a complaint process but gave differing instructions for reporting misconduct. For example, the Bureau’s General Orders, which number 513 pages, included guidance for making certain types of complaints and encouraged firefighters to report harassment or discrimination to their supervisor or others. The guidance was outdated, referring to two recipient entities that no longer exist.

The other internal document told employees to report certain violations to the supervisor of the employee who was the subject of the complaint. While that advice aligned with the Bureau’s “chain-of-command” structure, it may have dissuaded some employees from reporting if they didn’t have confidence the supervisor would respond appropriately.

Human Resources Administrative Rule 2.02 applies to all City employees and offers several options for filing harassment, discrimination, racism, and retaliation complaints, including avenues outside the supervisory hierarchy. Even though employees can file complaints with Human Resources under the City rule, some Fire employees were hesitant to go outside of their Bureau to take advantage of it.
 

Supervisors received little guidance on complaint-handling
The Fire Bureau’s approach to conflict was to have supervisors at the lowest level of the organization address it, but management had not instructed them how to respond to complaints about Bureau employees from the public or co-workers.

The limited guidance about handling complaints meant individual supervisors could decide how best to respond. Some could choose to do nothing, while others elevated issues to Human Resources or up through the chain-of-command.

That latitude is especially problematic in a workplace that views itself as a family and where supervisors often have long-standing relationships with the employees they oversee. This likely contributed to a perception among some employees that the accountability system was uneven and prone to favoritism.

We could not verify the consistency of supervisors’ handling of complaints because the Fire Bureau did not document them, and Human Resources tracked complaints only if they resulted in an investigation. Without complaint data, the bureaus also missed an opportunity to identify trends, workplace risks, and training needs.
 

Employees perceive investigations as inconsistent, unfair, and slow
Some Fire Bureau employees perceived misconduct investigations as inconsistent or unfair. They believed outcomes were influenced by who made the complaint, who was being investigated, and who was conducting the investigation. Employees said that favored employees were held to a lower standard than others. Employees also believed investigations took too long to complete, conditions that combined to take a toll on morale because employees did not get a timely resolution if they got one at all.

During our review, Human Resources performed most investigations into Fire Bureau misconduct. We shared additional observations with Human Resources in a separate letter.

Our audit included a review of investigations conducted by Fire Bureau supervisors, Human Resources, and outside investigators from 2018 to 2020. We could not determine whether investigations were consistent or fair, primarily because documentation was incomplete. Some investigative folders were empty, while others contained only an interview transcript or audio recording. We also found that Human Resources’ centralized tracking of investigations and discipline was not complete and included errors and inconsistencies.

When investigative folders contained information to review, we often could not tell if Human Resources’ procedures were followed. A number of procedural steps were unclear or worded as suggestions, and some were not required to be documented.

The incomplete information also made it difficult to verify the length of investigations. Those we could assess took between 27 and 376 days to complete, or an average of 116 days.

Human Resources’ investigative procedures do not include timeliness benchmarks for completing key steps or guidance on how to complete investigations promptly. And Fire managers, who are increasingly responsible for conducting investigations, have little training and no Bureau-specific guidelines on how to do so. Some also said they are unsure how to prioritize accountability functions within their existing work.

We noted that some delays were outside investigators’ control, such as when an employee was on leave from work, and review by the City Attorney’s Office. The Fire Bureau and Human Resources said that firefighters’ every-third-day shifts can make it hard to schedule and complete interviews.
 

Discipline decisions were unpredictable, time-consuming, and viewed as unfair
Our audit and the Portland State study revealed that many Fire Bureau employees viewed the disciplinary process as unclear or unfair. Some employees said that discipline was inconsistent, and others said it was rarely imposed.

We identified at least 22 investigations from 2018 to 2020 that resulted in discipline, including oral reprimands, written reprimands, and suspensions. In other cases, supervisors counseled employees who violated work rules about their conduct.

With the exception of investigations into allegations of off-duty driving under the influence of intoxicants, the Bureau did not have guidelines to ensure consistent corrective action when an investigation determined an employee violated work rules. A discipline manual for City managers and supervisors developed by Human Resources and the City Attorney’s Office says the level of discipline should be based on the severity of the violation and factors unique to the employee, including previous warnings or discipline and work history. As a result, two employees who engaged in similar misconduct may receive dissimilar discipline.

Lack of transparency about the process and disciplinary decision-making likely contributed to employees’ mistrust of the process. Fire Bureau policies did not explain that managers and supervisors consider various factors when making discipline decisions. And management said it avoided communicating about imposed discipline, even in general terms, to avoid harming employees.

The Fire Bureau’s stated practice of treating information about investigations and discipline as confidential was consistent with City and Bureau guidance. But nothing prohibited the Bureau from conveying non-identifying information to communicate that there were consequences for misconduct or that workplace changes were made as a result of the accountability process. Some complainants and investigated employees may also never learn about the outcome of the investigation because the Bureau did not require that they be notified, and City rules only require notice in harassment and discrimination cases.

The absence of discipline guidelines likely contributed to delays in the accountability process. We found the Fire Bureau took between one and 463 days, or an average of 119 days, to decide discipline after investigations were completed.

The Fire Bureau set a responsible goal to diversify its workforce. It will struggle to achieve it without taking measurable and timely steps to develop a clear and consistent workplace accountability system that employees trust.
 

Recommendations

To ensure that the Fire & Rescue Bureau achieves its workforce goals and gains the benefits of an accountable workplace, the Commissioner-in-charge and the Fire Chief should:

  1. Set clear expectations for work requirements and employee conduct, including:

    1. Implementing the Portland State University workplace culture study recommendations on training and norm-setting.

    2. Verifying that all employees complete training on prohibited conduct in the workplace, as required by City rules.

  2. Develop methods and guidance to ensure:

    1. Employees and the public understand how to file complaints and have access to multiple reporting options, including one for anonymous complaints.

    2. Managers and supervisors know procedures for complaint-handling, including how they are documented, routed, and tracked.

    3. Complaints are centrally and accurately recorded in a format that enables trends to be identified and evaluated for intervention, training, and policy changes, and that this analysis is performed.

    4. Investigations into employee misconduct are consistent, impartial, and timely. The Bureau should adopt guidance for investigations that:

      Outlines clear instructions on how to conduct investigations;

      Documents Human Resources’ role in investigations;

      Ensures investigators are trained and have the time needed to conduct investigations;

      Addresses possible issues unique to the Fire Bureau, such as familiarity bias;

      Sets timeliness benchmarks for key investigative steps;

      Includes instructions to help investigators streamline the process;

      Requires investigations to be periodically reviewed to identify inconsistencies or missed benchmarks;

      and requires complainants and investigated employees to be notified when investigations are completed.

    5. Discipline decisions are predictable, fair, consistent, and prompt.

    6. Improvements to the workplace made as a result of complaints, investigations, and discipline are periodically communicated to employees to show that the accountability system is working.

  3. Encourage employees to report harassment, discrimination, racism, and retaliation. The option to report directly to Human Resources should be clear and promoted in case employees are not comfortable reporting up the chain-of-command. Supervisors and managers who fail to forward such complaints to Human Resources should be disciplined, as required by City rule.
     

We recommend that the Commissioner-in-charge of the Bureau of Human Resources and the Chief Human Resources Officer:

  1. Improve Human Resources’ investigation guidance to ensure that necessary investigation steps are performed and documented, and that notice is given to employees when investigations are completed. The updated guidance should include timeliness benchmarks for key investigative steps.

  2. Accurately document and monitor complaints, investigations, and discipline to enable the data to be analyzed for risks, interventions, policy changes, and training needs.
     

The Fire Chief and the Director of the Bureau of Human Resources generally agreed with our recommendations

View the responses to the audit from Portland Fire & Rescue and the Bureau of Human Resources.
 

How we did our work

Our audit objective was to determine if Portland Fire & Rescue’s complaint, investigation, and discipline processes were clear, consistent, and in line with industry standards. The Bureau of Human Resources was included because it was involved in or responsible for parts of these processes.

To accomplish our audit objective, we:

  • Interviewed sworn and non-sworn managers at the Fire Bureau, employees at two stations, representatives of the Portland Fire Fighters’ Association, managers and staff from the Bureau of Human Resources and the Fire and Police Disability and Retirement Office, the City Ombudsman, City Budget Office staff, City attorneys, and a researcher from Portland State University’s Center for Public Service.

  • Surveyed Fire Bureau employees in 2021 about complaint, investigation, and discipline processes and summarized the 20 responses we received. The survey was anonymous and confidential, and the results cannot be generalized to all employees of the Fire Bureau.

  • Incorporated results of the 2018 study conducted by Portland State University’s Center for Public Service.

  • Surveyed 14 fire departments across the United States about their accountability systems.

  • Reviewed: audits; best practices for workplace accountability systems; Portland State University’s 2018 Workplace Culture Assessment and two earlier cultural assessments of the Fire Bureau; State laws; Fire Bureau Rules and Regulations, General Orders, Operational Guidelines, and Drug and Alcohol Policy; memos to staff; the City’s Human Resources administrative rules; Human Resources’ Discipline Manual, Standard Operating Procedures for investigations, and Administrative Rule 2.02 investigation flow chart; the City’s Code of Ethics; the City’s contract with the Portland Fire Fighters’ Association; media coverage; and public information about the Fire Bureau.

  • Attended an Administering the Discipline Process training hosted by the City Attorney’s Office and Human Resources.

  • Reviewed and analyzed Fire Bureau complaint, investigation, and discipline records from 2018 to 2020 provided by Human Resources, risk claim data, and coaching and discipline data from the Fire Bureau’s employee management system.

We started this audit in October 2019 and paused it in March 2020 at the request of the Fire Bureau, which experienced increased workload from the Covid-19 pandemic. We restarted the audit in March 2021 and completed fieldwork in November 2021.

Auditing standards require auditors to be structurally independent of the audited organization to avoid any actual or perceived relationship that could impair the audit work performed or findings reported. The City Auditor is responsible under City Charter to conduct audits, which are performed by the Audit Services Division. Under City Code, the City Auditor is also empowered to receive complaints and conduct investigations. The Fire Bureau investigation and discipline records provided by Human Resources included complaints that were referred to or investigated by the Ombudsman’s Office, a division within the City Auditor’s Office that is separate from Audit Services. We included these cases in our scope and communicated conclusions about outside investigations in a letter to the Bureau of Human Resources. We do not believe the City Auditor’s other non-audit responsibilities constituted a threat to our independence.

We conducted this performance audit in accordance with generally accepted government auditing standards. Those standards require that we plan and perform the audit to obtain sufficient, appropriate evidence to provide a reasonable basis for our findings and conclusions based on our audit objectives. We believe that the evidence obtained provides a reasonable basis for our findings and conclusions based on our audit objectives.

Audit Team: Jenny Scott, Performance Auditor III, and Jennifer Amiott, Performance Auditor II