Portland's Fire Bureau has an "incoherent" accountability system, according to a report published by the city auditor's office Wednesday. From skipping workplace anti-discrimination trainings to managers doling out inconsistent discipline to employees, the audit found unreliable oversight mechanisms in place for one of the city's top first response departments. These faults are particularly harmful for Fire Bureau staff who are not white men (nearly 80 percent of the bureau's 700 staffers are white men).
“The Fire Bureau has set laudable goals but will struggle to meet them without a transparent and credible employee accountability system,” said City Auditor Mary Hull Caballero in a press release announcing the audit. “Firefighters of color, women, and those who identify as LGBTQ+ have earned their place in the Bureau. Portland risks losing their continued service if their workplace is viewed as one of favoritism rather than fairness.”
Auditors blamed some of the accountability issues on the bureau's unique structure. The more than 30 fire stations across Portland are run by staff on 24-hours shifts, where staff spend most of their time together.
"The Bureau’s culture is shaped by employees living together and protecting each other’s lives in dangerous situations," the audit reads. "Some employees said the close-knit culture was the best part of the job, and that firefighters look out for one another."
Others, however, said the white male-dominated environment alienated people of color and women, and fostered unprofessional conduct.
Between 2018 and 2020, 43 percent of all internal complaints within the Fire Bureau included "allegations of unprofessional behavior, including discourteous, offensive, racist, or harassing conduct," the audit revealed. And many complaints might not be reported at all, since auditors found the bureau's culture appeared to reward people who didn't "rock the boat" by speaking up about inappropriate behavior.
Further, the audit found that if staff wanted to file a complaint, it wasn't exactly clear how to do so. The bureau's website offers no information on how staff or members of the public can file complaints about bureau staff and internal documents gave employees contradicting and outdated guidance on how to file a complaint. And, because supervisors weren't trained on what to do when they received a complaint, it left the investigation and discipline process up to each individual supervisor to determine.
This led some employees to believe the process was inconsistent, unfair, and influenced by favoritism, according to interviews auditors had with Fire Bureau staff. There was little documentation of these complaints, meaning the the bureau "missed an opportunity to identify trends, workplace risks, and training needs," the audit reads.
The auditor's office recommended the Fire Bureau overhaul its accountability system in an effort to diversify bureau staff and rebuild trust. That includes creating clear expectations for staff on what conduct is inappropriate in the workplace, building an easy framework for reporting misconduct, and offering uniform guidance for supervisors on how to investigate and fairly discipline any misconduct.
The report relied on employee interviews, bureau records, and previous research on the bureau's to inform its findings. One of its lead research sources was a workplace culture study conducted by Portland State University (PSU) in 2018, which reached many of the city audit's same conclusions. In a response to the audit, Fire Chief Sarah Boone argued that, because of the audit's reliance on a 2018 PSU study, the city's report is "stale" and "outdated."
"The relationship employees have with their workplace is very different than three years ago," said Boone, "and the priorities I have upheld and promulgated since I became chief have been those of transparency and accountability."
Boone was appointed to be the Fire Bureau's first Black chief in 2019. Since taking the position, Boone has prioritized diversity in the hiring process, including hiring an equity manager to oversee the process. In her response to the audit, Boone agreed that the bureau needed clearer discipline guidelines for both supervisors and the employees they oversee. She pledged to address these issues and others with a newly-funded professional standards program within the Fire Bureau.
These changes seem in-line with what the auditor's office has recommended.
"The Fire Bureau set a responsible goal to diversify its workforce," the audit reads. "It will struggle to achieve it without taking measurable and timely steps to develop a clear and consistent workplace accountability system that employees trust."