4 firefighters suspended over fire vehicle collisions
3:30 p.m Monday, Oct. 17, 2016
The Austin Fire Department has suspended four firefighters over collisions involving fire department vehicles, according to documents released Monday.
The suspensions involve some higher ranking firefighters, including one captain, and come as recent suspensions have led the Austin firefighters union to open an investigation into disciplinary procedures.
In less than a month, Fire Chief Rhoda Mae Kerr has suspended nine firefighters for collisions involving fire vehicles. Each suspension has been only for a matter of hours.
For example, fire Capt. Tye Prange, received a four-hour suspension for his role in a May 7 incident in which a fire truck he was supervising struck tree limbs and damaged the vehicle, a disciplinary memo said.
Those suspensions have hurt morale, according to fire union president Bob Nicks.
Memo’s false claim deepens rift between firefighters, Austin fire chief
By Philip Jankowski - American-Statesman Staff 2
Posted: 5:19 p.m. Friday, Oct. 14, 2016
Austin Fire Department sent out false information in a memo about a suspended firefighter.
The memo said firefighter Robert Garcia had pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor crime in Bexar County — he did not.
The episode has prompted the firefighters union to investigate how department leaders mete out discipline.
Relations between rank-and-file firefighters and Austin Fire Department leaders have reached a new low after the department sent out false information about a suspended firefighter that left his lawyer and the union wondering if the man’s privacy had been violated.
A false assertion that firefighter Robert Garcia pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor crime in Bexar County was included in a memorandum signed by Chief Rhoda Mae Kerr and contributed to Garcia’s nine-day suspension.
The memo illustrates what union President Bob Nicks said is a pattern of improper, over-the-top punishment for firefighters in recent months. The episode has prompted the Austin Firefighters Association to launch an investigation into how Fire Department leaders mete out discipline.
“I have the utmost confidence in our investigative process and in the disciplinary actions I have taken, and welcome the opportunity to discuss those in further detail with the Association,” Kerr said in a written statement.
Twice in the Oct. 4 disciplinary memo, it asserts that Garcia — who is accused of vandalizing his ex-wife’s car and home — was on deferred adjudication for a misdemeanor charge of criminal mischief, which could only be true had Garcia been convicted. Court records and the Bexar County district attorney’s office confirmed that Garcia’s case is still pending. His attorney said that nothing even close to a plea deal was in the works.
“It’s just simply untrue,” Garcia’s attorney Monica Garza Arriaga told the American-Statesman. “There is no other way to describe it.”
In a written response, Austin fire officials implied that they based their assertion of Garcia’s guilt on his own statements about the case.
“Based upon the information gathered during the Professional Standards Investigation, including Firefighter Garcia’s statements regarding the status of his criminal case, the Department believes the information contained in the suspension memorandum was correct at the time it was filed with the Civil Service Commission,” it said.
While the union’s investigation will look at many recent firefighter suspensions, it will also focus on the 60-day suspension of Lt. James Crowther, who Kerr suspended in July for allegations of neglect of duty. Nicks said the lengthy suspension strong-armed Crowther into accepting the punishment and waiving any right to appeal. Crowther would have been fired had he not accepted the punishment.
In recent weeks, the Fire Department has suspended five firefighters for collisions that have occurred on duty. While those punishments were only unpaid suspensions of between three and 12 hours, Nicks said they were unfair and appear to show a policy of punishing firefighters for small mistakes.
“Ultimately it damages morale,” he said.
Kerr was censured in 2014 and in August by the International Association of Fire Fighters, which cited grievances about overly harsh punishments by Kerr and dissatisfaction with the Professional Standards Office, which conducted the investigation that led to Garcia’s suspension.
The firefighters need to respect the public property they are using to minimize or prevent the damage. These are very expensive equipment and it costs hundred of thousands of dollars to replace. The Chief is right. The firefighters are behaving like spoiled kids based on these minimal suspensions. We do not care too much about the firefighter's morale. They need to slow down and be more careful.