The Wandering Firefighter

The Wandering Firefighter

Pete Coryell had been city manager of Lotis for nearly 20 years. Several years ago, prior to the current fire chief’s appointment, Coryell had to assume the role of acting fire department manager. The fire chief at the time had retired and a replacement had not yet been named. On his first day of this temporary duty, he stopped by the fire station for some routine paperwork.

As he was about to leave, Fire Lieutenant Bob Carson stopped him in the hallway. “Mr. Coryell,” he called out. “Can I talk to you about something?”

“Sure,” Coryell responded. The lieutenant, with his arms flailing and voiced raised explained, “Mr. Coryell. Every fire station in the United States of America … in the United States of America … has three refrigerators … one for each shift!” He then led Coryell into the station’s kitchen area and showed him the two refrigerators wedged between a wall and a countertop cabinet. With his hands shaped for a karate chop he showed Coryell, as if he were cutting the cabinet, he said, “Now see, here we can cut out this cabinet right here because we do not use this countertop to cut our meat on any more. We bought that cutting board over there,” he said, pointing to one near the sink, “to cut our meat on now because we can wash it in really hot water, don’t want to cut on this counter anymore, you know because of the salmonella thing. And we can just cut this counter out right here and the third refrigerator will slide right in!” He continued, with his arms still flailing, “Because God forbid, you come off a 4-day Kelly2 and it’s the peak of the tomato season, and I mean the peak of the tomato season, and,” he gasped “you go to the refrigerator and there is no mayonnaise!”3 Carson was dead serious. He was another of the city’s hard-core unemployed hired under the C.E.T.A. program in 1976. His 30-plus-year career with the fire department only recently came to an abrupt end.

A 911 call came in to the city’s dispatch, reporting smoke coming from the roof of a restaurant about eight blocks away from the city’s fire station. Carson was alone in the fire department when the call came in as the other firefighters/EMTs were on an ambulance run. He asked the dispatcher, “Yeah, well what do you want me to do about it? I’m here by myself.”

Just then, Fire Chief Nelson arrived from another part of the building and told Carson to respond with the fire engine and he would follow in the pickup truck. As they arrived on the scene, two fire trucks from a neighboring city were already en route under the communities’ mutual aid pact. Carson put on his turnout gear and breathing tank, climbed the outdoor stairs on the building and began to attack the fire. He was soon assisted by the neighboring firefighters. Meanwhile, the fire chief donned the mandatory incident commander vest and directed the fire scene. Apparently agitated that the chief, who had only been with the department 14 years, had taken command of the scene, Carson threw down his air tank and exchanged words with the chief. All this time the structure was on fire. After angrily declaring, “I can’t take this anymore!” Carson stormed off the scene. In full turnout gear and covered in soot, he harrumphed all the way back to the fire station, incredulously, leaving the scene of a working fire! Seeing him stomping down the sidewalk, an off-duty police officer stopped to see if he needed help. In a string of profanities, Carson said that he just couldn’t take it anymore.

When Carson arrived at the fire station, he removed his turnout gear, checked himself out, and went home. The next day as Coryell was reading the chief’s report of the fire lieutenant’s leaving the scene of a working fire, the local firefighters’ union president appeared in his doorway. He handed the city manager a memorandum from the union recommending that Carson receive a commendation for heroism for single-handedly fighting the fire before he left. After the union president left, Coryell just shook his head in disgust. He called the fire chief and directed him to immediately terminate Carson and directed the police to charge him with a misdemeanor criminal charge of willful neglect of duty.

The union, of course, filed a grievance and demanded the lieutenant’s immediate reinstatement. The union officials felt he did nothing wrong, or at least that was the position their attorney verbalized. The city countered that it would rescind the termination under the following conditions:

  • The lieutenant would be demoted to the rank of firefighter.
  • All payouts for accumulated sick and vacation time would be at the firefighter rate.
  • He would accept a 60-day unpaid, disciplinary suspension.
  • He would submit a signed letter of resignation effective the last day of his suspension.
  • Upon acceptance of the required letter of resignation, he would be allowed to begin his retirement.

This was not acceptable to the union. Its executive board met with the city manager and seemed to understand the seriousness of the lieutenant’s negligence. The union officers just wanted the city to allow him to retire. The city manager agreed he would allow such if they simply would withdraw their grievance and let the termination of the lieutenant stand. They verbally agreed and then consulted with their attorney. Their attorney prepared a grievance settlement document that provided the following:

  • The lieutenant would provide the city with a letter setting forth his voluntary termination.
  • Any and all documents relating to his discharge would be expunged from his personnel file.
  • Any requests for information were to indicate that his employment ended by way of a voluntary termination.
  • His application for retirement would be processed and benefits initiated as soon as possible.

This was unacceptable to City Manager Coryell. He told the firefighters’ union officers that the lieutenant crossed a line that a firefighter should never cross. “He left the scene of a working fire!” Coryell exclaimed. After considerable persuasion and over their union attorney’s objection, the union officers withdrew the grievance and the termination was upheld.

 

Questions

  • Was City Manager Vogle partially responsible for Officer Knight’s suicide?

  • Was it unethical for Vogle to terminate Knight so close to a holiday?

  • Should Vogle have sent Knight to an anger management program in an effort to retrain him?

  • Was there just cause to immediately terminate Lonnie Knight after he chased his estranged wife with the city’s patrol vehicle?

  • Was it unethical for Burgess to assume Morgan’s guilt without first holding a hearing to determine his defense of his actions?

  • Was it unethical for her to agree to dropping criminal charges against Morgan in light of his admission of guilt?

  • Was Coryell’s firing of Carson too harsh a punishment especially in light of his 30 years with the city?

  • Were criminal charges against Carson justified?

  • What exactly is a voluntary termination? Would this be considered firing oneself?

1In fairness, not all communities used C.E.T.A. funds only for police and fire positions. Maintenance workers, park attendants, and the like were also hired.

2A 4-day Kelly is when a firefighter gets 3 days off in his or her rotation, and about every 2 months a 4th day is added on; this was supposedly invented by a New York firefighter by the name of Kelly.

3 Only an astute city manager would note that in John Travolta’s movie Ladder 49, the Baltimore fire station only has two refrigerators.