Utah-Fire Captain Fights for his Job
Firefighter stuck in the hot seat
His lonely battle to keep the job he loves has dragged on for years
By Kristen Moulton
The Salt Lake Tribune
Harmon displays his "Cap'n Dan" tatoo, which he got after getting his job back the first time. (Steve Griffin/The Salt Lake Tribune)
LAYTON - The first time Dan Harmon was fired as an Ogden fire captain, depression and self-doubt nearly engulfed him.
He thought about suicide, but after two decades as a paramedic and firefighter, he had seen too much to do that to his family.
"He was angry that wasn't an option," recalls his wife, Carolyn Harmon.
Twice, Harmon - who began his career as a firefighter by joining a volunteer department in California on his 18th birthday - boxed up the collection of firefighter antiques and memorabilia displayed around his Layton home.
"It got to the point I didn't think I deserved to have my fireman stuff out," Harmon says.
To his boss, Harmon didn't deserve to wear firefighter gear anymore - not after allegedly engaging in horseplay and sexually provocative antics on the job as well as missing several mandatory meetings.
Ogden Fire Chief Michael Mathieu also contended that Harmon, now 50, lied to him during meetings about the other accusations.
With a shelf full of firefighting collectibles behind him, firefighter Dan Harmon relaxes in his Layton home. For the second time in five years, he is fighting to get his job back. (Steve Griffin/The Salt Lake Tribune)
So Mathieu fired Harmon in 2000.
Three years later, the Ogden Civil Service Commission determined the firing was excessive, and Harmon was back on the job. But the Utah Court of Appeals reversed the decision last summer and sent it back to the Civil Service Commission.
The Utah Supreme Court refused to review the case, so the city two weeks ago put Harmon back on his last official status: "Terminated."
The commission, tentatively scheduled to meet Nov. 10, must decide whether to give Harmon a new hearing.
Mathieu declined this week to talk about Harmon's job performance in the nearly two years he has been back. Nor did he speculate on whether, this time, the commission will agree that he had good reasons to fire Harmon.
"I'm not sure what the final outcome will be," Mathieu says. "I stand behind my original decision."
Harmon was fired after the chief concluded Harmon lied to him during disciplinary meetings concerning violations of department policy. Harmon contends the chief's questions were phrased in such a way that, when Harmon answered by referring the chief to a letter instead of answering him directly, he was not lying.
Among the accusations were that Harmon had, in the previous decade, participated with subordinates in pranks that simulated sexual acts, engaged in sexual banter with a female trainee and urinated into the shower stall while another firefighter was showering. The chief also contended it was no joke when Harmon and other firefighters filled a bottle with urine that a retired battalion chief had expected to have filled with weed killer.
The chief maintained that Harmon violated his directives and hid the details of a 1996 celebratory dinner that Harmon coordinated for the fire station that had raised the most money for the Muscular Dystrophy Association.
At that event, one of the bikini-clad women hired to cook the meal lowered her top briefly while firefighters took photographs.
Harmon concedes that his behavior was juvenile, but insists it
was an attempt to lighten the stress of the job and was similar to behavior known to happen in fire stations. Others involved were not disciplined, he notes, and no one ever filed a complaint.
"I never did any of that to humiliate or embarrass anyone," Harmon says. "I'm the guy who could get guys back into play, who could lighten the mood."
As for the MDA dinner, Harmon said he was too shocked when the woman briefly unfastened her bikini top to take action, but notes that a senior officer whose station it was also did not stop her nor did he tell the chief about it later.
Mathieu began investigating Harmon after the soon-to-be-ex-husband of a firefighter complained that his wife and Harmon had exchanged sexual banter two years earlier, when she was a trainee.
Harmon concedes he missed mandatory meetings, including three in the 18 months before his termination. He blames financial and marital troubles at the time for his failures, but says in the prior 20 years, he missed only one other meeting. He first was hired in 1979 and was promoted to captain in 1991.
In its decision two years ago, the Civil Service Commission, on a split vote, said it found Harmon's behavior crude and juvenile, but the punishment too harsh and too abrupt because Harmon had not been warned his behavior was unacceptable. The commission set aside some of the chief's grounds for termination.
The appellate court, however, said the commission had exceeded its authority and was obligated to address each of the grounds for termination cited by the chief - including the allegation Harmon had lied.
"In weighing the punishment against the offense, the commission must give deference to the chief's choice of punishment."
Harmon doesn't know when or if he will get a new hearing, although his case is up for commission discussion this month.
The last time he was fired, Harmon took on a string of jobs selling cars, driving limousines, loading chairlifts, working at Lowe's and selling pesticides.
"It was like being arrested and thrown into a jail for three years and not being able to see a judge."
While he waits this time, Harmon is reshingling his roof and exchanging e-mails with his son, a Utah National Guardsman serving in Iraq.
He has thought about removing the firefighter flag, which flaps alongside Old Glory and the U.S. Army banner on his front lawn.
"I was about to take the firefighter flag down, but I thought, 'Bull crap! I'm not taking it down.' "