Flagler Beach City Manager Bruce Campbell on Friday placed a third of his fire department on paid administrative leave pending an independent investigation of “serious allegations” of violations of city policy by the fire chief and others. The alleged violations all have to do with drinking at the fire station or responding to a fire after drinking at a Christmas party.
Fire Chief Martin Roberts, Assistant fire Chief Shane Wood, firefighter Jacob Bissonette and Fire Police Captain Steve Wood have been placed on leave, according to city records. Robert Pace, a firefighter and paramedic, is the acting chief, as he was last year when a different set of allegations emerged against Roberts. Roberts survived that controversy—focused on his trip to inspect fire trucks without the city manager’s knowledge—with a three-day suspension.
The allegations originated with Pace, who wrote a two-page letter on Dec. 26 to Campbell and Libby Kania, the human resources director, citing “several incidents recently that are very concerning to me and several members of the fire department.” But he was not alone filing the complaints. Another firefighter sent a letter to Kania and Campbell on the 25th, and another–a volunteer firefighter–on the 28th. The names of those firefighters were redacted from the document turned over to a reporter. The documents also included two additional, undated letters addressed “to whom it may concern,” by firefighters, relating the events as they saw them on. Complaints were conveyed to Flagler Beach City Commissioner Marshal Shupe, who is also a volunteer fireman in the department. Shupe related those complaints to Kania, and produced a two-page narrative of the issue in as far as he became aware of it, or involved in it.
Campbell has retained Fishback Dominick, a Winter Park law firm, to conduct the investigation, for up to $10,000. Should the investigation cost more, the Flagler Beach City Commission, which learned of the suspension in a memo Friday, would have to vote approval. But until then the investigation is under the city manager’s budgetary purview and does not require city commission approval, Campbell said in an interview Monday morning. The law firm was recommended to him by City Attorney Drew Smith.
Pace’s allegations focus on two dates. The first was Dec. 14, when the fire department held its Christmas party at Friend’s Café. That same evening, the Flagler Beach Fire Department was the lead agency in response to a fire that partially burned a three-level house on North Oceanshore Boulevard. Roberts commanded the scene, and the fire, despite the discovery of a dry fire hydrant, was put out swiftly, and most of the house saved.
“I was not involved with the call that took place this evening, but I’m writing in regards to the events I personally witnessed,” Pace wrote in his memo.
Pace said he saw Steve Wood drinking at the party. Pace was at the party and “had a few drinks myself,” then left, with his wife as his designated driver. Pace was only later told of the fire on Oceanshore. He was not among the responders at that fire. On Dec. 19, Pace was told by firefighters Snyder and Turish that they’d seen Steve Wood responding to the fire and operating the city’s tower truck. “Both firefighters,” Pace wrote, “voiced their concerns of safety, perception, and complete disregard for our department’s standard operating policies.” Pace told Roberts of the firefighters’ concerns. Roberts, according to Pace’s memo, issued a verbal reprimand to Wood “and he was confident that Captain Wood would never attempt anything like this again.”
The memo then shifts to Dec. 25, when Pace and Snyder got to work for their shift, relieving Assistant Fire Chief Shane Wood and Jake Bissonnette. As the group talked over its “daily pass-down,” Pace claims that Wood and Bissonnette “retrieved two jars out of their shift’s refrigerator” and allegedly began drinking what “Snyder and I realized the content of the jars was apple moonshine.” Wood and Bissonnette were off the clock, but Pace says they “proceeded to consume a portion of the contents of the jars while still in the department’s kitchen and still in their uniforms.”
Pace also cited the moment later in the day when Steve Wood came by the station to ice down a beer cooler, as he was on his way to Shane Wood’s house. “In just a few short days, several infractions have occurred by multiple members,” Pace writes. “I would have to think that these kinds of acts have become commonplace, or by any means acceptable. The proper channels were explored with no recourse.”
The memo does not mention drinking by Roberts, but the Jan. 4 letter from Campbell to Roberts does so. “Allegations have been submitted to me that you consumed alcohol during the Fire Department holiday party on December 14, 2012 and immediately thereafter responded to a fire in a city vehicle,” Campbell wrote Roberts.
Shane Wood said he could not speak on the matter while it was under investigation. Roberts could not be reached. Small though it is, the Flagler Beach Fire Department has been riven by politics—if not exclusively internal, then by way of community pressures, as factions and allegiances have formed over one group of firefighters or another. When Roberts was reinstituted in summer following the controversy over out-of-town trips, some celebrated, others didn’t. The allegations in this case, however, are more serious. In summer, the controversy centered on unauthorized trips that the chief and others nevertheless conducted on their own time to inspect fire trucks, though a fire truck company paid travel costs. Some commissioners were unreservedly complimentary of the chief and the trips’ purpose, which the commission, in effect, had obliquely authorized.
Allegations of drinking on city property, or driving a city fire truck to a fire call, are more serious, as they would entail the direct violation of city policy.
“It’s serious enough that I believe that they needed to be placed on leave while this investigation took place,” Campbell said. “We have a third party conducting the investigation, there’ll be a series of interviews and we’ll find out fact from possible fiction, or fiction from possible fact, whatever it ends up being. But it was serious enough that I took that action Friday afternoon in fact.”
The investigation could take weeks.
“I’ve stressed that it be a timely and compressed cycle time,” Campbell said. “I hope that that doesn’t take us weeks to complete, and our attorney and our third party investigator is on board with that.”
The fire department has six paid firefighters, plus the fire chief. It also has some paid volunteers, two of whom were moved into the regular ranks of the department to cover for the other firefighters’ absence. Campbell said city residents should not fear for their safety in case of fire incidents, and that county and Palm Coast fire departments are always at the ready with assistance—as indeed they were on the Dec. 14 fire.
“I am confident that we’ve got our ship in order, and none of our citizens and none of our public should be alarmed with our level of services as we go forward,” Campbell said.