Head Scratching Behavior Disgraces Fire Service

BALTIMORE – Sometimes, things happen in the fire service that leaves the public, elected officials and even firefighters themselves scratching their heads and wondering what happened.

Curt Varone, firefighter with 40 years’ experience and 29 years as a lawyer, presented a course called “You Can’t Make This Stuff Up: Leadership Case Studies” at Firehouse Expo in Baltimore where he talked about some of the unusual events that have occurred in the fire service in recent years.

View full coverage of Firehouse Expo

Varone talked about a recent incident were firefighters in Los Angeles let a porn star pose and expose herself for the camera at a beach side community. Calling it First Amendment collision, Varone said what is the commander in charge of those L.A. firefighters to do when an incident like that happens.

“We just told the guys not to interfere with people taking photos, and now this happens,” Varone who retired as a career firefighter in Providence, R.I, with a rank of deputy assistant chief. 

Varone said none of the firefighters who were involved with the porn star filming were punished, but the chief sentenced himself to 120 hours of community service, ironically not for his involvement with the L.A. beach incident, but for a similar incident that happened 13 years prior when he was a captain in another department.

On the topic of First Amendment, Varone walked through a series of recent case studies involving confrontations between media and responders – many did not turnout well. After showing a video of a Miami-Dade responder confronting a reporter who was filming an apparent crash scene with a medical helicopter who was filming the incident from across the road.

The incident escalated with a responder confronting the reporter and physical contact being made.

“Who is right in that situation,” Varone quizzed the attendees. The audience got the question right and said the reporter was in the clear and the responder was wrong to try to interfere.

“We all share a First Amendment right to cover the news,” Varone said. “It’s not limited to just the media. We can all take photos and videos under First Amendment rights.”

That makes it challenging because in some cases, it could be a 15-year-old boy with a cellphone camera and web page or Facebook account filming responders every actions and having it posted for public consumption even before apparatus is back in the station.

“But, we can’t interfere with anyone who wants to take photos or videos,” Varone said.

He did offer some advice saying incident commanders have the right to enforce reasonable safety and working zones and limit access to everyone, not just media and people with cameras.It's also OK to block or shield patients at incidents, he said, although some dispute that.

Varone also took on the topic of drinking in fire departments and the damage it can do to departments and the high costs associated with that aspect of firefighting culture.

Using an incident that happened with the Fire Department of New York (FDNY), Varone said a firefighter was permanently disabled and won a lawsuit for $3.25 million from an incident that occurred on Dec. 31, 2003.

Firefighters were apparently drinking in a Staten Island station on New Years’ Eve when a long-simmering feud between two firefighters erupted into an alteration where one firefighter hit another with a metal chair causing a life-altering head injury.

The officer in the incident decided to “cover up” the ordeal and the firefighter was taken to the hospital in a private vehicle. No report was made, no ambulance was called. A story was hatched to say the firefighter fell down the stairs at the station and suffered the injury, Varone said, noting that an investigation quickly dispelled that ruse.

Firefighters lost jobs, the city lost a suit and the injured firefighter never worked as a firefighter again, he said. FDNY’s issues didn’t end then when another assault took place on June 30, 2009. One firefighter assaulted another resulting one firefighter needing reconstructive surgery, Varone said.

Alcohol was suspected in that case as well, Varone said, noting that the cover up included a story about an off-duty bar room brawl. As a result of both of those incidents, FDNY, with support of the department’s firefighter union, implemented a random drug and alcohol testing policy, Varone said.

The department decided to have two buses pull into stations and require department members to give samples under the threat of termination, Varone said. Before that, they offered “no-questions-asked” counseling and help for any fire department member who asked for it, Varone said.

“But, if you didn’t ask, and that bus pulled up on that apron in front of your station, and you decided not to give a sample, you’re gone,” Varone said.

It was the department’s way to “shift the bell curve,” a term Varone said meant the culture of the fire department changed and more people were complying with the rules than not. “It takes a lot to shift the curve,” Varone said.

Other issues that have given the fire service a black eye include many incidents of theft or embezzlement of fire department funds, hoax noose incidents, cheating on exams and on pay roll issues, Varone said.

Arson, sex in the fire station, joy riding and pranks are a few more.

“The problems are bad enough that people are noticing and we have to do something about it,” Varone said, adding that it takes leadership and integrity among the officers and chiefs to change some of the unacceptable cultural issues with the fire service.

“There has to be a balance between loyalty and the brotherhood and trust, duty and honor,” Varone said.