FDNY leader's call for innovation, stance against bullying at meeting sparked shake
The chiefs Laura Kavanagh demoted had several complaints against them and refused to follow her orders, according to a source
By Thomas TracyNew York Daily News
NEW YORK — FDNY Commissioner Laura Kavanagh asked her top brass for fresh ideas to tackle issues within the department, but her chiefs were more interested in how far outside the city they could drive their take-home cars without getting in trouble, a recording exclusively acquired by the Daily News reveals.
The pivotal Feb. 3 meeting, in which Kavanagh demanded "innovative outside the box thinking" from her staff chiefs led to the demotions of three chiefs and the resignations of four others, touching off an internal crisis at the top of the department that has exploded into public view.
The confusing back-and-forth between Kavanagh and her staff chiefs is a startling example of the uphill climb the city's first woman fire commissioner has faced as head of a 17,000-member agency steeped in tradition.
Four months into her term, Kavanagh has already hit a roadblock — at least four staff chiefs, including Chief of Department John "Jack" Hodgens, the most senior uniformed official in the FDNY, and Chief of Fire Operations John Esposito resigned their ranks this week, outraged that the commissioner personally demoted three other staff chiefs who were considered "bad apples."
The chiefs she demoted had several complaints filed against them and refused to follow her orders, a source with knowledge of Kavanagh's thinking told the News.
"She can move people in the department to better the safety of the department and all New Yorkers," the source said.
The chiefs who resigned have asked to be moved out of FDNY headquarters in Brooklyn and be put back in the field. At least three other staff chiefs are expected to follow suit.
The high-ranking firefighters claim there has been a complete breakdown of communication between themselves and Kavanagh resulting in confusion and frayed nerves.
Another source with knowledge of the ongoing struggle said Kavanagh repeatedly leaves her staff chiefs out of the loop. All of her decisions are made with a small circle of aides — which includes an ex- NYPD lieutenant — without the chiefs’ input, despite their years of experience.
"The chiefs had to give up a lot to be here," the source said. "And it's not the person, it's the position. They have to be included in these moves and they weren't. This was the final act."
During the impromptu meeting at the eighth-floor conference room — one of the first with the staff chiefs since becoming commissioner — Kavanagh gave them a general idea of what she expects from the brass and rattled off several dos and don'ts.
"Innovative and out of the box thinking," she said, according to the recording. "That is what I expect here. I don't need to think how things have been done in the past. That is what we have rules and regulations for. That is how the department runs."
She also dropped a major don't: The leaders shouldn't bully their subordinates. Ever.
"Bullying of any kind is completely off the table," she said. "I will not tolerate [it]. It is not effective. It does not do what you think it's going to do. It is also not befitting of the New York City Fire Department. If you want to bully or threaten either your co-workers or your superiors, that will not be tolerated by me. That is a hard line."
Those in attendance bristled by her line in the sand, even though she didn't point out any one person, said a senior staff chief who was present .
"Some people took the meeting kind of personal and maybe felt like it was being directed at them, but she stated throughout the meeting that she was not talking about any one individual," the chief said. "She just wanted us to cease the shenanigans and solidify the team.
"I took it as we’re going to go out there and make things happen," the chief said. "I didn't have any issues with her tone, but others took issue."
When a chief questioned her stance against bullying, Kavanagh said she had seen "specific instances of people being threatened."
"Things like ‘If you talk to so-and-so, you know, I’m going to cut off x, y and z from you,’ or ‘I’m going to stop speaking to you.’" Kavanagh said. "I have zero idea why anyone would do something like that.
"I’m not talking about harmless teasing," she continued. "I’m talking about insulting someone aggressively. I’m talking about screaming in this office. Screaming at the top of one's lungs is not necessary in a staff environment, unless someone is dying and you are trying to give them help."
Out of the 16 questions brought up by staff chiefs, three were about vacation requests and vacation rollovers from one year to the next. Seven were about the use of FDNY take home vehicles, according to a review of the audio recording.
Kavanagh had told the staff chiefs that since taking on the job, she has been assailed with questions about promotions and the use of their take-home cars, which staff chiefs are given to respond to an emergency when they are off duty.
"Folks say we have to have our car with us at all times," one chief said. "But if I have to go into Nassau for something personal, now I have to have my car with me. How do I balance that?"
The remaining six questions were about her stance on bullying, capital projects and if she was going to put out an organizational chart of the top ranks for future reference.
"Is it fair to say that despite the point I made, the majority of the questions here today were about pay and vacation and cars?" Kavanagh asked the chiefs.
The final chief to speak addressed the ongoing issue with being kept in the loop.
"I would really like to also think of this as, like a kick-off to better communication, not only amongst us, but upwards to the commissioner," he said. "When we come to work we should really be focusing on moving forward."
Hodgens’ request to be booted back to the field stunned many in the department, who wondered why he didn't give it more time.
"It was unprecedented," said one chief with more than 30 years experience on the job. "I was embarrassed. I don't like seeing the department being dragged through the mud.
"In every administration going back as far as I can [remember], they’ve reshuffled the deck," the chief said. "The new administration goes in and picks their staff. This should not be shocking. This has got to be driven by a small group of people."
Kavanagh, the chief said, has repeatedly visited firehouses and reached out to the rank and file in her time as both acting commissioner and commissioner.
"She's been working for the department for nine years. She knows what's going on and what this department needs," the chief said. "She just wants to get things done, but she needs the right people surrounding her."
Kavanagh is unapologetic about what she said in that momentous meeting earlier this month.
"While these comments may have been made behind closed doors, I stand by them," Kavanagh told The News Saturday. "Our team is focused on reducing fire deaths and keeping our members safe, and the FDNY remains ready to respond to any and all emergencies."
Andrew Ansbro, the president of the Uniformed Firefighters Association, said rank-and-file firefighters don't know why the staff chiefs are in such an upheaval.
"As far as we can tell, it's a union issue against management over some transfers," Ansbro said. "But my guys get transferred all the time, so they are entirely uninterested."
Despite the issues at FDNY headquarters, it's still business as usual at the firehouse, he said.
"Maybe there’ll be less nonsense coming out of MetroTech with the slowdown," Ansbro joked. "Fires are still going to go out."
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