A Good Fireman Retires – FDNY Capt. Al Hagan
“A Good Fireman Retires” – Capt Al Hagan-Beloved Fire Officer & Union Leader (REPRINTED FROM: The Secret List)
An old friend (and one of the original TSL subscribers) Captain Al Hagan has retired from the FDNY. Al was also President of the Uniformed Fire Officers Association IAFF Local 854.
www.ufoa.orgMany of you will also know Al as a popular FDIC and Firehouse Expo Instructor-among many other classes and seminars-you are definitely fortunate to have spent time with Al .
He is absolutely one of a kind.
Al retires almost 41 years working as a Firefighter (E-36), Lieutenant (L-44) and Captain (L-43). He retired Saturday morning, August 30th, effective at 0900….Labor Day weekend. He is also retiring as President of the Uniformed Fire Officers Association. In Al’s words: “Collectively, it was a wonderful experience that I wouldn’t trade for the world! I’d like to thank all of you that were kind enough to help.”
Take a moment to read and enjoy the below story from The Chief Leader.
Even if you haven’t met Al-take a look at the below for a great lesson in leadership-at the firehouse-and at the political level:
Alexander Hagan last week had already removed all of his personal photos from his office: the many snaps of his family, but also the one that captured himself in a very different time-in gym shorts as a young man who competed in five marathons when he wasn’t fighting fires.
As he got ready to retire on Aug. 30, the Uniformed Fire Officers Association President and Fire Captain, now 64, looked back fondly on a time when on nice days, he sometimes ran the 13 miles to work.
Smoke Took a Toll
Those days have slipped past, ended by a bum knee and the chronic bronchitis and cough that have plagued him for more than a decade. The lung problems recently sparked a diagnosis of reactive airway disease, a condition that can result from exposure to noxious substances and that has been called “occupational asthma.” Mr. Hagan said he might have gotten it even if he hadn’t spent months cleaning up at the World Trade Center site after Sept. 11.
‘My Fair Share of Feeds’
“In the Fire Department, when you get exposed to a lot of smoke, they call it ‘taking a feed,”’ he said, noting that his 35 years in the field were spent in the South Bronx and Spanish Harlem, two of the city’s busiest areas for fire in the ’70s and ’80s. “I will tell you, I’ve been to many, many fires and I took more than my fair share of feeds. So a little bit of reactive lung disease is not that bad.”
He came on the job during what firefighters call the “war years”: a decade when 97 percent of the buildings in seven Bronx census tracts were lost to fire or abandonment.
Those conditions may be foreign to new Firefighters today, when the number of structural fires and the fatalities they cause are at all-time lows, but the department then was going through a similar period of diversification.
Started At Turbulent Time
In 1973, the year Mr. Hagan entered the firehouse, a Federal Judge had just declared that the entrance exam had an adverse impact on blacks and Latinos, was not job-related and needed to be revised. He implemented a three-to-one quota system under which one minority candidate had to be hired for every three white candidates appointed from the list. The percentage of African-Americans in the department was just 3 percent-roughly what it was three years ago when Judge Nicholas Garaufis made the same characterization and went a step further, declaring the FDNY to have intentionally discriminated against people of color for decades and appointing a Federal monitor to oversee hiring.
Hundreds of active and retired firefighters formally objected to Mr. Garaufis’s decision, in writing or in two-minute statements given in the courtroom, and many predicted that with the revision of the test, standards would plummet and the quality of the firefighting force would be compromised.
Doesn’t Fear for Future
Mr. Hagan said he’s a strong supporter of the merit system-he paraphrased George Washington Plunkitt, the flamboyant leader of the Tammany Hall political machine a century ago, a book of whose sayings Mr. Hagan is fond of handing out to colleagues and reporters as background on the importance of a strong civil service.
“I honestly believe that drink is the greatest curse of the day, except, of course, civil service, and that it has driven more young men to ruin than anything except civil-service examinations,” Mr. Plunkitt once said.
But despite the dire predictions by Judge Garaufis’s detractors who believe his ruling subverts the merit system, Mr. Hagan said of the new diversity effort, “I think that everything will be fine.”
‘Quality, Attitude Great’
“From what I’ve seen, the quality of the new people is high and the attitude is great, it’s terrific. They want to be firemen. They love the Fire Department as much as or more than anyone else. And that’s what you need.”
At his first firehouse, Engine 36 in East Harlem, hazing was still the few-holds-barred institution that was discouraged in later years and that former Fire Commissioner Salvatore Cassano formally banned in May 2013.
“They treated you like a scullery maid,” Mr. Hagan said, likening it to Mr. Miyagi’s treatment of Daniel at the beginning of the “Karate Kid” movie. Probies had to clean the whole firehouse-“they learn to wax on, wax off”-as well as the company’s tools, which Mr. Hagan said helped them identify them and remember where on a rig each piece is stored.
Pranks for the Memories
Mr. Cassano’s anti-hazing order called for “dignity and respect” for new members; he wrote that “there are no such things as pranks, because somebody may take something a different way than somebody else.”
The prohibition may not include assigning extra work duties to probies-the Uniformed Firefighters Association at the time complained that its scope was unclear-but it certainly covers a classic prank described by Mr. Hagan in which a probie would be called to the bottom of the fire pole. When he looked up, his colleagues would drop a bucket of water, and then a bucket of flour.
During his stint at Engine 36 in the quota era, Mr. Hagan said one minority probie came in who was initially given “the same hard time they gave me,” only he took “maybe a little more” guff for being a quota hire.
He Grew on Them
Within weeks, he said, “Whatever initial resentment and trepidation there was melted in the heat. He was willing to be good at his job. He was willing to take the pain.”
Firefighting is a very experience-driven job, he added; no one understands the way a fire moves until she’s seen dozens of them. So for a newbie, “it’s all about heart and willingness.”
Hazing, whatever remnants persist after Mr. Cassano’s ban, can affect people differently when they come from a different neighborhood or gender or ethnicity and don’t have mentors like them who they see are no longer being singled out, Mr. Hagan acknowledged. He said it’s a Captain’s job to set the limits on what’s acceptable-and he believes that the era of surprise showers at the fire pole are over.
‘He’s a Unifier’
Captain Hagan may have been particularly suited to set such limits and have them be respected. Battalion Chief John Dunne, a former UFOA executive board member who served with Mr. Hagan and four other presidents, called him the kind of leader who “has the ability to get people on the same page that he is on…he always had us pointed in the right direction and you’d see that he was right and you’d get behind him.
“He had a united executive board,” he added. “And that’s not easy to do, nine guys pulling in the same direction.”
Mr. Hagan was elected by the membership as Captain’s representative in 2008, and then elected president of the 2,700-member union unanimously by his executive board five years in a row. Before he came on board, the union’s governing body was deeply divided, Mr. Dunne said, and part of the change was due to Mr. Hagan’s leadership style.
“We discussed everything,” and often made decisions together, he said. “It was very collaborative.”
Keeping his board informed was the first item Mr. Hagan cited when discussing how he operated as president, and he maintained that his missteps occurred on the occasions when he didn’t follow their advice.
Such modesty seemed to fit with Mr. Dunne’s depiction of him winning over people with his self-effacing nature.
“And he’s got a great way of articulating that is unique to him,” Mr. Dunne said. “He tells you just like it is, he doesn’t pull any punches.”
He later added, “I think even Bloomberg liked him, I mean personally.”
Weathered Mayor’s Cuts
Much of Mr. Hagan’s energy, of course, was concentrated on fighting the annual defunding of fire companies that former Mayor Michael Bloomberg in each of his last five years in office claimed was necessary due to budget cuts. (The money was restored each year by the City Council, after pressure by the fire unions.) Mr. Hagan invited each City Council member to his local threatened company and educated him on the unique tools and techniques of its members, Mr. Dunne said. But he avoided personal attacks, on either the Mayor or the Fire Commissioner, who he acknowledged was the Mayor’s representative and not an autonomous figure.
He also, Mr. Dunne said, set a “one-man, one-job” policy at the board, allowing each member to more effectively focus on one goal; began holding popular retiree meetings and ensured that they got the same aid as active firefighters for Hurricane Sandy damage; significantly added to a scholarship fund for the children of active members who die; and boosted the union’s focus on political action.
Got Members Involved
“Participation by UFOA members in political action increased a lot during Al’s tutelage,” Mr. Dunne said. “We turn out members for literature drops, phone banks-we’ll have hundreds of guys working citywide for the people we endorsed.”
The board during Mr. Hagan’s term also set up a political education fund, which Mr. Hagan said 98 percent of members contribute to. He is of the mind that a union’s political work should be focused not on general social issues but on matters that directly affect all members: salaries, benefits and working conditions.
According to Mr. Dunne, every elected official they endorsed was first interviewed by the entire board before each election. Those who voted for the reduced pension benefits under Tier 6 in 2012 had a tough time the following interview.
“We had a term for how they were verbally treated by Al: they were Haganized,” he said, claiming that at least one official left in tears over his questioning.
Cops Among His Fans
Mr. Hagan is reportedly well-liked among many union officials, and helped solidify an alliance with police superior officer unions into a bargaining coalition.
Michael J. Palladino, the president of the Detectives’ Endowment Association, paid tribute to Mr. Hagan’s famous schedule, adopted during the days he was studying for his promotion exams and woke daily before dawn.
“I’ve always been very impressed by the leadership of the UFOA, Hagan included. I think Al is a very knowledgeable, solid union leader and I am going to miss his wit, his sense of humor and of course, his 5 a.m. e-mails,” he said.
‘A Labor Legend’
Roy Richter, president of the Captains’ Endowment Association, said, “So you’re doing a piece on a legend, huh? There’s a couple of legends in labor and I think Al Hagan’s one of them.”
He said he admired his ability to get a point across with a mixture of humor and forcefulness, and said he had become “one of the main players in the union business” by forging strong ties with labor umbrella groups including the AFL-CIO and the Municipal Labor Committee.
“Al Hagan brings a presence to the table that is unmatched in labor circles,” Mr. Richter said.
Mr. Hagan cited as his biggest disappointment that he wasn’t able to negotiate a contract, accusing the Bloomberg administration of bad-faith bargaining.
Mr. Dunne offered perhaps the highest praise.
“I said to him, ‘You’re the only man other than my father that I’ve ever said ‘I love you’ to,’ he recalled, later calling Mr. Hagan “a mensch,” “a ball-breaker” and “Lincoln-like.” He added that the company he still officially leads until Aug. 30, Engine 36, was widely recognized as one of the best in the city, thanks in part to his leadership.
“One of the highest compliments we in the FDNY can pay to another is, ‘He was a good fireman,'” he added.
The UFOA will hold an election the first week of September to choose a replacement from among the executive board.
Our best wishes go out to Captain Al Hagan.
Take Care. Be Careful. Pass It On.
The Secret List 9-1-2014