Fire Service Law Expert: Need for Culture Change

SAN DIEGO, Calif. -- Sex in firehouses, thefts from stations, ambulances and citizens' homes, overtime scandals, fights between firefighters, downloading child porn on company computers, and cover-ups.

Coverage of Firehouse World 2012

These are just a few things going on these days in the nation's firehouses.

Many heads were shaking and chuckles were heard as Curt Varone discussed various incidents during a session at Firehouse World aptly entitled "You Can't Make This Stuff Up."

Varone, an attorney and retired firefighter, said the examples of bad behavior he displayed were not intended to poke fun or embarrass departments but to draw entice discussion about problems with leadership.

He pointed to an article in a newspaper in 1865 that questioned discipline in the fire department. "This was during the Civil War," he said.

Another in 1939 suggested a military officer was needed to head a fire department because it was felt he could bring discipline.

Varone reviewed suits involving fights and seriously injured firefighters in FDNY.

In 2003, a discussion between firefighters over the date of Elvis Presley's birthday resulted in a career ending injury for one. Both had been drinking, and one was hit over the head with a metal chair.

Instead of calling an ambulance, he was taken to the hospital in a personal vehicle. Varone said officers ordered firefighters to clean up the bloody mess at the station.

He said the attempt to cover up the incident didn't stop there. They reported that Walsh had fallen down the stairs which prompted a departmental investigation. Eventually, the true facts came out.

In the end, three officers and 12 firefighters were disciplined. The assailant man was sentenced to a year in jail, but served only a few months. He was fired.

The injured firefighter who couldn't return to work, sued, and was granted $3.75M.

Six years later in another FDNY firehouse, another firefighter was beaten so severely he had to have reconstructive surgery. Again, no one called EMS, and a similar cover-up started.

However, it also was unraveled. The lawsuit from the injured firefighter is still in the courts.

Varone said incidents like these suggest the need for a change in fire service culture. Leaders also must have the skills to be officers, and not be afraid to discipline.

Often, he said, officers want to be everyone's buddy and therefore, overlook problems.

Showing pictures of newspaper accounts of firefighters charged after having sexual encounters with minors in the firehouse, he asked: "How could this be allowed to go on. You know someone had to know." He added that looking the other way cannot be acceptable, and it's imperative that a team have discipline. "Also, the public expects accountability."

As headlines about firefighter scandals, arrests and misbehavior flashed on the screen, Varone questioned why the officers didn't do their jobs, and in some instances, headed the elaborate cover-ups.

"People are noticing," Varone said, adding that that may be the reason that some cities have chosen to put police chiefs in charge of fire departments.

That's a move he added he hopes doesn't catch on. The attorney said there are a number of lawsuits involving firefighters pending.