WILLIAM W. “SHORTY” BRYSON became fire chief of Miami-Dade Fire Rescue (MDFR) in August 2011. He oversees an annual budget of more than $352 million and 2,500 employees, including nearly 2,000 uniformed firefighters. After receiving a bachelor of science degree from the University of Florida, Bryson was hired as a firefighter by the City of Miami in 1975. Over the next 35 years, he advanced through the ranks, serving the last nine as fire chief. During his tenure, the City of Miami earned an ISO Class 1 rating. He also served on the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) Executive Board for 15 years and was president of the Miami Association of Firefighters IAFF Local 587 from 1990 to 1996. In 2008, he was awarded Fire Chief of the Year by the Metropolitan Fire Chiefs’ Association. Bryson serves on the Labor Management Initiative committee of the IAFF and International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) and has been chair of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1710 committee for the past four years. The interview was conducted by Firehouse® Magazine Editor-in-Chief Harvey Eisner.
Firehouse: Miami-Dade Fire Rescue (MDFR) recently had a significant budget deficit. What kind of creative solutions were you able to work out with labor? How did you avoid pay cuts?
Bryson: We had to cut a total of $26 million from our budget. The biggest part, $21 million, had to come from the IAFF bargaining unit, Local 1403. With the help of Local 1403, we did joint work sessions to determine where we could save that had the least impact to service and the employees. The largest financial single item was agreeing to reassign 95 administrative uniform personnel back to positions in Operations. The move would save close to $10 million for the current fiscal year. In addition, we cut some senior management positions and the bargaining unit gave up pay items, including taking three furlough days each fiscal year for the new three-year contract.
Firehouse: How did you restore a positive relationship between labor and management?
Bryson: Prior to becoming the fire chief, the relationship between the Local and the previous fire chief had reached a low point. My first priority was to demonstrate to the Local that I was here to re-establish a working relationship that was beneficial to both sides. I entered right into contract negotiations. I believe when the Local saw management putting some management positions on the table and looking for ways to prevent pay cuts, we won their respect and cooperation. After seeing our efforts to save, the bargaining unit opened up. They suggested ideas, good ones too. We had now established a relationship based on trust.
Firehouse: How do you communicate your philosophy to the members of the department?
Bryson: When a department has 2,500 members, you have to use a multi-faceted approach to communicating, and I like to repeat some simple messages often.
First, I had to ensure my staff and I had agreement on how we felt as a group; we had to literally be on the same page. In our various avenues of communication, we continued to push in the direction where we wanted to head. To get to the rank and file, I use videos once a month that are viewed on our intranet sites throughout the department. I try to keep them to about five minutes in length; you can really say a lot in that amount of time. I have quarterly battalion chiefs’ meetings to lay out my expectations and to hear their expectations for management – they are a two-way dialogue. Also, whenever invited, I like to go to fire stations for lunch. I think the firefighters like the fact that I show up alone and spend some time with them and hear what they have to say.