Rise of Buffalo (N.Y.) Fire Dept. Brass Appears Political

Buffalo Fire Department is now run by three people who don't have enough civil service rank to oversee a fire scene or a firehouse.

April 15--For the past three years, the Buffalo Fire Department was run by a trio that, for the first time in anyone's memory, didn't include a single person with enough civil-service rank to oversee a fire scene or a firehouse.

The department's top brass included Deputy Commissioner Vincent R. Gugliuzza, who was plucked from the fire union and was Mayor Byron W. Brown's largest campaign donor among city employees in the last election. The other deputy, Joseph J. Tomizzi, saw his career skyrocket but is now under investigation for allegedly abusing his authority to do criminal background checks.

Both hold the civil service rank of firefighter.

Their boss, Fire Commissioner Garnell W. Whitfield Jr., also never rose through the uniformed ranks as a lieutenant, captain or battalion chief. Whitfield is a former chief fire administrator who served as the department's liaison with the state Civil Service and Pension systems. That is not a firehouse command position.

Some firefighters say this recent regime brought a level of politics not seen in the department in recent memory and created an atmosphere where some believe campaign contributions buy promotions.

They also describe a department often stuck in the past -- using carbon paper and lacking enough modern computer equipment -- and a brass so obsessed with a City Hall edict to cut overtime that it put firefighter safety in jeopardy.

In one case, they argue, a commissioner's order prohibiting top officers from being called in for overtime meant firefighters and lower-ranking officers would do the work of more-qualified superiors. That order was viewed as so dangerous to firefighters that chiefs in the fire halls refused to enforce it.

The Brown administration did not directly address all of the issues raised, but spokesman Michael J. DeGeorge emailed a statement to The Buffalo News saying promotions are based on ability and performance.

In fact, the Brown administration over the years has indicated that prior administrative or other management experience can trump uniform rank. Whitfield was fire administrator for six years and a deputy commissioner for an additional six years before being named commissioner.

Gugliuzza, who was ousted two weeks ago, was a union vice president and president and has a master's degree in criminal justice. Tomizzi ran the department's arson investigation office before being named deputy.

"Rising through the ranks -- lieutenant, captain, chief -- is outstanding experience. However, there are equivalents," said J. Gregory Love, a former firehouse chief in Detroit who later served as a deputy fire commissioner with Whitfield under former Mayor Anthony M. Masiello.

"Garnell's ability comes from working in one of the busiest battalions when he was in the field, which helped him when he became administrator, which helped him when he became commissioner," said Love, who is currently a consultant with the International City County Managers Association in Washington, D.C.

Still, there's speculation that the lack of rank within the department brass was part of the reason Gugliuzza was forced out at the end of the month, abruptly ending his stint as a deputy commissioner. At the time, the administration cited "overtime and other issues," but department overtime hours dropped over each of the past two years. Gugluizza's successor, Kevin D. Peterson, is a captain who previously headed up the department's hazardous materials unit. Peterson begins his new duties this week.

The Brown administration in the past has said some firefighter complaints stem from administration efforts to curb sick-time abuse and overtime used to boost pensions for firefighters nearing retirement. Officials also have said no one is expected to make campaign contributions to get a job or promotion.

Gugliuzza, though bitter over the way his ouster was handled nonetheless spoke highly of Whitfield. He said the department has tried to modernize, despite budgetary restrictions, and noted that the union contract allows those from lower ranks to fill in for higher officers, even though the directive banning officers from overtime was retracted,

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