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

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,

There is no law requiring that top public safety brass come from the uniformed ranks. But lack of firehouse command rank is rare among city Fire Department brass.

Whitfield, who earns $142,116 a year to command the 700-member department, is the first fire commissioner anyone interviewed could remember who never held a uniformed officer position within a firehouse. And the recent top-brass trio of Whitfield, Gugliuzza and Tomizzi is the first any could remember with no firehouse leadership experience.

"The commissioner is a nice man," said Daniel Cunningham, president of Buffalo Firefighters Association, Local 282. "A good family man. But he doesn't have a lot of respect from some officers because he doesn't have any official rank."

If Whitfield, Tomizzi or Gugliuzza returned to a firehouse, they wouldn't have the rank to command it, or even a fire scene, added a lieutenant, who, like many of the dozen firefighters who spoke with The News, did not want to be identified.

Still, there was no public outcry from firefighters when Whitfield was named commissioner, and Gugliuzza was named his deputy.

But firefighters did speak up when, on the same day it was announced Whitfield's predecessor would not be reappointed, the Brown administration announced six new lieutenants -- but bypassed two who scored higher on civil service exams. It marked the first the fire union leadership could recall the city invoking that option. The two were never told why they were skipped over, and both were promoted within the next two years.

In fire halls, some interpreted the move as City Hall's not-so-subtle way of tying promotions to campaign contributions.

Some firefighters who never before contributed to a political campaign suddenly made donations. Of the six fire captains promoted to battalion chief in September 2013, five contributed to Brown's campaign in 2012. The sixth captain did not contribute to Brown, but someone else in his household did, according to campaign reports.

Most firefighters, however, didn't make political contributions. Just three of the 23 firefighters promoted to lieutenant last September gave to Brown. One of those promoted even gave $5,000 to Brown's Democratic primary opponent, Bernard Tolbert.

Gugliuzza said that he doesn't believe there is a connection between contributions and promotions. He gave $5,700 to Brown's 2013 re-election campaign and was just ousted from his $129,273 a year post as deputy commissioner. Gugliuzza said the donation was a way of thanking Brown for his promotion; he didn't donate to Brown prior to being appointed deputy in 2010.

The other promotion that raised eyebrows occurred on April 2010 when Tomizzi was named arson squad supervisor. He became a firefighter in 2000, and moved into the arson unit in 2004. With 10 years in the department and without having moved up the uniformed ranks, he was still considered relatively new when named unit supervisor.

In addition, some wondered if Tomizzi was abusing his authority to perform criminal background checks, including checking on some firefighters. City and county authorities are now investigating those claims which Tomizzi, through an attorney, has denied.

Regardless, because the union contract requires the arson unit supervisor have at least lieutenant rank, Tomizzi served as acting lieutenant until the city created a new position, arson squad commander, so Tomizzi could remain in charge, Cunningham said. That commander job didn't require a civil service test, but also didn't carry the extra money Tomizzi was getting as acting lieutenant, Gugliuzza said.

Gugliuzza said he later was talking with Deputy Mayor Steven M. Casey about some upcoming promotions when Casey brought up Tomizzi and asked, "What can we do to get Joe more money? Can we make him a deputy commissioner?" Gugliuzza said he was then asked to leave the room, while Casey spoke to Whitfield. Casey, however, denied ever having made such a remark.

The Brown administration statement said Tomizzi was promoted because of his strong management skills and the success of the arson squad he headed. The number of arsons dropped, and the percent of cases cleared by arrests increased from 2006 to 2013, the statement said.

In 2011, with 11 years on the force and firefighter rank, Tomizzi was named to his $120,778-a-year deputy commissioner post.

And with that appointment, a management trio that once consisted of a battalion chief, a lieutenant and a firefighter/fire administrator had been replaced by a firefighter/administrator and two firefighters.

Before the recent forced resignation of Deputy Commissioner Vincent R. Gugliuzza, the Buffalo Fire Department top brass included no one from the uniformed ranks. The department's leaders were:

Garnell W. Whitfield Jr.

Title: Buffalo fire commissioner

2013 gross pay: $142,116

Civil service status: Firefighter; chief fire administrator

Original hiring date: September 1984

Age: 57

Whitfield worked as a firefighter for 14 years before moving into headquarters as a fire administrator in 1998. He was promoted to deputy commissioner in 2004 by former Mayor Anthony M. Masiello and to commissioner in 2010 by Mayor Byron W. Brown

Joseph J. Tomizzi

Title: Deputy fire commissioner

2013 gross pay: $120,778

Civil service status: Firefighter

Original hiring date: March 2000

Age: 48

Tomizzi was a firefighter for four years before being named an arson investigator in 2004 and head of the arson unit in 2010.

He was named deputy commissioner by Brown in 2011.

Vincent R. Gugliuzza

Title: deputy fire commissioner (resigned March 31, 2014)

2013 gross pay: $129,273

Civil service status: Firefighter

Original hiring date: April 1985

Age: 61

Gugliuzza became active in union activities about 10 years into his firefighting career, and was voted in 1999 to a three-year term as union president. He was serving as union vice president when appointed deputy commissioner in 2010 by Brown. Gugliuzza was forced to resign from the post March 31, and reverted back to a firefighter position in the department's mask room. He plans to retire by the end of the year.

Peterson taking over

Buffalo's newest deputy fire commissioner is Capt. Kevin D. Peterson, head of the department's hazardous materials unit. Peterson replaces former deputy commissioner Vincent R. Gugliuzza, who was forced to resign at the end of March. Peterson is expected to start his new job this week.

Kevin D. Peterson

Title: deputy fire commissioner (as of April 1)

2013 salary: $121,597 (as captain)

Civil service status: Captain

Original hiring date: April 1987

Age: 47

Peterson is a 27-year veteran of the Fire Department, with the civil service rank of captain, who was serving as head of the department's hazardous material unit before being appointed deputy commissioner April 1.

email: sschulman@buffnews.com

Copyright 2014 - The Buffalo News, N.Y.

Loading