San Francisco Mayor gets tough on Fire Dept.'s 'dirty little secret'
San Francisco Chronicle
Mayor gets tough on Fire Dept.'s 'dirty little secret'
Chief moves to fire battalion officer in on-job drinking case
Jaxon Van Derbeken, Rachel Gordon, Chronicle Staff Writers
Friday, April 8, 2005
On-the-job drinking in the San Francisco Fire Department is a "dirty little secret'' that has gone on for too long, Mayor Gavin Newsom said Thursday, as the city's fire chief moved to dismiss an acting battalion chief whose alleged on-duty drunkenness has caused reverberations throughout the department.
Chief Joanne Hayes-White sent a letter to the Fire Commission asking it to fire 26-year veteran Stephen Gritsch, who allegedly showed up drunk at department headquarters last Friday. If dismissed, Gritsch would be the highest-ranking San Francisco firefighter ever terminated for violating the department's policy against on-the-job substance abuse.
Hayes-White's top assistant, Deputy Chief Fred Sanchez, cleared Gritsch for duty Friday and let him leave headquarters in a department car even after two members of the chief's staff told him they smelled liquor on his breath.
Three hours later, after Hayes-White ordered Gritsch back to headquarters for a sobriety test, his blood alcohol was measured at 0.12 percent. That's over both the department's limit of 0.02 percent and the 0.08 legal ceiling for driving.
Newsom, questioned Thursday about the incident after it was reported in The Chronicle, said that if the accusations were true, the city's response would be swift.
"It's in everyone's best interest to deal with this quickly and appropriately and send a message to the rest of the department that things have changed, and there's going to be real accountability, and this mayor is not going to be passive in that process, nor is this fire chief,'' Newsom said.
He said he didn't believe that the department had a widespread drinking problem and described recent incidents as "absolute exceptions'' to the norm. Nonetheless, he said, there is some on-the-job drinking, and it is hurting the Fire Department's image.
"It's the dirty little secret that we've all known about for many, many years, and now with the new chief and I, as mayor, ultimately accountable, I'm not going to sit back and put up with it,'' Newsom said.
"We're going to do everything we can to make sure that no one is drinking in public safety positions," the mayor said. "It's unacceptable. You shouldn't be in that profession if you're going to abuse the privilege and abuse the public trust.''
Last year, the San Francisco civil grand jury issued a report saying the department had a problem with drinking and excoriating officials for not doing more to address it. In March, 28 firefighters, including two in Hayes-White's command staff, filed a lawsuit demanding that department brass stop on-the-job drinking.
The plaintiffs want Hayes-White to scrap her policy of deciding whether the department should discipline firefighters for drinking or using drugs on a case-by-case basis and instead enforce an existing zero-tolerance rule. They also want the department to implement random drug testing immediately, something the chief is negotiating with the firefighters union.
Newsom defended the chief's approach of assessing each case separately.
"I support the fire chief's policy,'' the mayor said. "She has done more in the year since she's been in that position than the previous two administrations, so I think she's doing it the right way.''
Hayes-White had no further comment about the case Thursday, said Capt. Pete Howes, spokesman for the Fire Department. He said the chief was overseeing the investigation into the handling of the incident herself.
Sanchez was not available for comment.
Hayes-White outlined the case against Gritsch in a letter to the Fire Commission that she wrote Monday and the panel released Thursday. He has been suspended since failing the sobriety test last Friday.
"During the time you were under the influence, you drove a department vehicle,'' Hayes-White wrote in the complaint. "The California Highway Patrol reported a (blood alcohol) reading of 0.12, which not only exceeds the department's threshold, but exceeds the state of California's limit for driving."
The commission now will schedule a hearing to determine whether to endorse Hayes-White's recommendation and fire Gritsch.
Fire officials said the only comparable case they could recall involving a high-ranking department official happened in 1995, when a battalion chief was demoted to captain for having used drugs or alcohol on the job.
Dan Siegel, an attorney lawyer for the firefighters suing the city, said the chief appeared to be taking the issue seriously in the Gritsch case.
"The question is what she ultimately does about it -- that remains to be seen,'' he said. "I think there needs to be some institutionalized change, rather than just actions against individual firefighters or individuals.''
Siegel said the command staff's handling of the incident before the chief got involved "reflects a refusal to take the issue seriously or enforce the city's policies.''
Fire Commissioner Paul Conroy hopes for a full accounting of the events that led to an allegedly drunken acting battalion chief's being cleared for duty.
"I certainly have concerns about it," Conroy said. "I'm looking forward to some sort of investigation that will provide us with a true picture of what occurred. I anticipate that the chief will do that."
He added that he was confident "that the chief is administering discipline appropriately. I think this is a good example of that -- she stepped in.''