Fire Law: 2012 Cases And Controversies

When I began to work on this review of fire service cases for 2012, my sense was that it had been a slow year compared with 2010 and 2011. In 2010, we had the landmark reverse-discrimination case of Ricci v. DeStefano, 129 S. Ct. 2658, 2671, 174 L. Ed. 2d...


To access the remainder of this piece of premium content, you must be registered with Firehouse. Already have an account? Login

Register in seconds by connecting with your preferred Social Network.

OR

Complete the registration form.

Required
Required
Required
Required
Required
Required
Required
Required
Required
Required

• In Carabassett Valley, ME, an ambulance crew was transporting a critically injured skier to the hospital during a blizzard. The crew was doing CPR and the patient’s wife, an ICU nurse who was riding up front, insisted that she be allowed to ride in the back. The driver stopped the ambulance long enough for the wife to exit the vehicle, then drove away and left her by the side of the road. Shortly thereafter, CPR was stopped and the skier’s body was returned to the ski area. Several investigations cleared the crew of any wrongdoing.

The United States did not have the exclusive on jaw-dropping fire law headlines in 2012. In Paris, France, members of the fire department’s elite gymnastics team were accused of sodomizing a new member as part of an initiation. In the United Kingdom, at the scene of a small cooking fire at the home of a school teacher, a firefighter swiped a computer disk that contained images of child pornography. The disk proved instrumental in convicting the teacher. However, the firefighter was reprimanded and fined 30 days’ pay for taking the disk.

Busiest fire law departments

While 2012 may be best remembered for the sheer volume of headline-grabbing cases, several fire departments seemed to have more than their share. Among the contenders:

• FDNY – In an epic race-discrimination lawsuit, the judge ordered the City of New York to pay up to $128 million in damages and the mayor sought to have the judge removed, claiming he has lost objectivity; a suit filed by a retired firefighter turned lawyer whose confidential medical records were leaked and used against him when he ran for City Council; and the tabloid-worthy trial of a calendar model firefighter accused of choking his transsexual girlfriend, who herself had been a contender for America’s Next Top Model.

• Los Angeles Fire Department – Allegations of faulty response-time data coupled with HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) concerns prompted the department to shut down its Twitter feed. The shutdown prompted allegations of a cover-up and lack of transparency, which then prompted an order by the mayor to restore the Twitter feed. All of this was capped off in December, when a provocative hula-hoop video filmed inside a fire station surfaced on YouTube.

• Philadelphia Fire Department – It has become all-out war between the Local 22 and the city administration with lawsuits suits, appeals and grievances too numerous to mention being filed.

The clear winner in the battle for the fire department with the most fire law headlines in 2012 goes to the District of Columbia Fire and EMS (DCFEMS). The cases began in January at the fire chief’s state-of-the-department speech ,when more than 100 firefighters walked out en masse, angry over the chief’s proposal to move from 24-hour to 12-hour shifts. That prompted a Tweet by the department public information officer on his personal Twitter account referring to the walkout as racist. He was disciplined and while he took his penalty in stride, the case points out the tension between a public employee’s First Amendment right to voice an opinion and the department’s ability to regulate work-related speech.

Another First Amendment issue at DCFEMS arose with the demotion of a fire lieutenant who gave a TV interview in which he was highly critical of the fire chief. Although the interview took place while the lieutenant was on duty, in uniform and in his station, he was disciplined because during the interview a person in need of medical attention pulled up outside and the lieutenant did not ask the news crew to turn off their camera.

In May, an interesting due-process case arose when the fire chief allegedly disciplined two battalion chiefs who served as hearing officers in separate discipline cases stemming from a “beer in the station” incident. In each case, they refused to impose the penalty sought by the chief. One battalion chief was demoted to captain and the other was reassigned from a line position to supply. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) publicly criticized the chief for the moves and questioned whether thereafter DCFEMS personnel could get a fair disciplinary hearing.

Also in May, an investigation was started into fires set in three dumpsters and an abandoned vehicle at the DCFEMS training academy. The fires damaged what appeared to be personnel records of members of the police and fire departments.