St. Petersburg Times

Firefighter may lose job for making crude comments
The city manager would have the final say about a Pinellas Park employee who earns about $59,000 a year.
By ANNE LINDBERG, Times Staff Writer
Published May 18, 2005

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PINELLAS PARK - A city firefighter could lose his job after making inappropriate comments to a college student during a ride-along.

Lt. Robin Brightbill admitted making crude comments, including details of a homosexual rape, sex in fire stations and his own sex life, to a female University of South Florida student during a March ride-along.

Investigators determined that Brightbill's comments amounted to sexual harassment and violated the city's personnel rules. Pinellas Park fire Chief Doug Lewis said he had not decided what punishment Brightbill might receive.

"We're going to try to make the appropriate decision," Lewis said.

If Lewis recommends that Brightbill be fired, the action would have to be approved by City Manager Mike Gustafson. Gustafson declined Tuesday to discuss the issue, saying the matter was in Lewis' hands.

Lewis said he was disturbed and disappointed by Brightbill's inappropriate comments.

"I was shocked with the description of the comments that were made," he said.

Brightbill, 40, did not return a phone message asking for comment.

A member of the department since September 1995, Brightbill has been the emergency medical services staff lieutenant for about two years and earns $58,791 a year.

The veteran firefighter met Kristen Callihan, 24, a graduate journalism student at USF, while she was serving as a volunteer photographer for the city's APPLE program. The program is designed to teach Pinellas Park residents about the city.

One APPLE class consisted of a visit to the Fire Department. Callihan went along to take pictures. While there, she and Brightbill agreed to a ride-along.

Callihan told investigators that Brightbill's offensive comments began within minutes after she got into the city car for the March 17 ride.

According to the city's investigative report, Brightbill agreed that he:

Told her to be careful not to hit a button on one of the microphones because it would activate a live mike and everyone could hear what was being said. Brightbill told her of two situations: one in Miami where a firefighter picked up a man on the street and raped him, and one in the Indian Rocks Beach Fire Department "where a guy was supposedly raped at a party."

Brightbill said some St. Petersburg firefighters were suspended because they had an open mike while discussing the Indian Rocks incident.

Used graphic language to discuss particulars of one of the rapes.

Told her about a supervisor with Manatee rescue who had a ride-along and "the girl came across the seat to do something to him and keyed the mike and it, basically the whole county basically knew what was going on."

Discussed firefighters in Sacramento, Calif., who had sex in the station and another incident in Sacramento when firefighters picked up women at a bar and brought them back to the station for sex.

"Must have" told her his ex-wife allowed him to have sex with other women as long as he used a condom.

Used crude language to discuss parts of the male body and "probably" used the f-word.

Said Callihan was pretty and demure, "like a librarian," but that he bet she was wild when she let her hair down.

Talked about an incident in Tampa when firefighters brought in strippers.

Brightbill told investigators that he had no second thoughts about the conversation until the complaint was filed. Callihan, he said, did not seem uncomfortable during the conversation.

Callihan, however, said during the investigation that she was so upset, she was unable to eat lunch during the ride. Callihan also said she felt "slimy" and did not want to have anything to do with the Pinellas Park Fire Department again.

She told her roommate, her boyfriend and her mother about the incident. She also told one of her professors, Beth Reynolds, who reported it to the city.

Reynolds said Tuesday that Callihan "would rather not comment at all. . . . She would like to move on."

The past year and a half have been rough for the Pinellas Park Fire Department.

In January 2004, a drunken firefighter hit another firefighter in the head with an aluminum softball bat during a party. In August, a firefighter was charged with drunken driving.

In November, another firefighter was charged for the second time with drunken driving. In December, a firefighter was accused of domestic battery.

Those incidents came under the watch of retired Chief Ken Cramer.

This is the first major disciplinary matter to face Lewis, who completely took over in January.

[Last modified May 18, 2005, 00:50:19]