Between Firings and Wrist-Slaps: How the Flagler Beach Fire Department Was Gutted
FlaglerLive | February 28, 2013
An independent investigation confirmed charges of alcohol use by Flagler Beach city firefighters, including some who responded to a fire call under the influence and others who bought, stored and drank alcohol while on duty at a fire station.
Five firefighters including Chief Martin Roberts, two full-timers and two volunteers were fired.
The probe by Daniel W. Langley, an attorney with the Fishback Dominick law firm in Winter Park, also uncovered evidence of a poorly run Fire Department divided by warring factions. A city official who knew and trusted the firefighters expressed shock after hearing about the scandal.
Steps taken to shore up the shattered Fire Department and protect the city include elevating some volunteer firefighters to full-time paid status, at least temporarily. The fired employees have 30 days to appeal to the city’s Personnel Review Board.
Fired along with the chief were full-time paid firefighters Jacob Bissonnette and Shane S. Wood, as well as volunteer firefighters Steven W. Wood and Barbara Haspiel.
“When I first heard about it, shortly after it happened, I was surprised, disappointed,” said Flagler Beach City Commission Chairman Jane Mealy. “These are all people I know.”
Mealy stressed that the volunteer firefighters elevated at least during the short term to full-time, paid status have received training. “One of my first questions was, are we protected,” she said. “The positions are temporarily filled with volunteers who have training. They aren’t lesser firemen. They just weren’t on the payroll.”
A separate investigation resulted in a three-day suspension without pay for firefighter Bobby Pace on an unrelated charge of padding the number of hours worked at the Fire Department by people required by courts to perform community service. This case figured prominently in conspiracy theories voiced by one faction of firefighters against another. But it also highlighted the sharp difference between the way Campbell handled some of the firefighters who broke city policy regarding alcohol and Pace, whose falsifying of records was arguably more grave and consequential an act than a firefighter’s merely storing fake moonshine in a department frige for less than 24 hours.
City Manager Bruce Campbell told the firefighters he intended to fire them in letters dated Feb. 14 and 15. Campbell expressed special disappointment in the letter to the former fire chief, Roberts. The chief was fired after the city investigation found he responded to a fire call after drinking alcohol at the Fire Department holiday party on Dec. 14, 2012. Also, Roberts directed Steven Wood to respond to the same fire call even though he knew Steven Wood also had consumed alcohol at the same party, according to the investigation.
In the letter to Roberts, Campbell noted that the city investigator reported a “high degree of intra-department discord” and lack of organizational control. Campbell wrote that he had lost confidence in the ability of Roberts to lead the city’s Fire Department.
“Finally, I find it exceedingly disappointing and discouraging that you did not advise me of any of these issues and complaints until after the investigation into your own actions was begun,” Campbell wrote in the termination letter to Roberts. “I have previously discussed with you the importance of advising me of issues going on within the Fire Department. Prior to this investigation and after you had knowledge of the complaints that resulted in this investigation and two others conducted by the city, I asked you if there was anything going on at the Fire Department that I should be aware of. I cannot understand why, yet again, I had to hear about allegation of violations of Personnel Policies from others and not the department head responsible for the Fire Department.”
An attempt to reach Martin for comment was unsuccessful. His phone was not accepting messages. City Manager Campbell did not return repeated calls for comment.
“Other than Chief Roberts and Assistant Chief Shane Wood, in the Chief’s absence, there appears to be the lack of a formal chain of command structure when both the Chief and Assistant Chief are absent from the Firre Station,” the investigation noted.
The investigator discovered a “high degree” of discord between two factions of Fire Department employees. Faction one included Shane Wood and Jacob Bissonnette. Faction two included Bobby Pace, Dusty Snyder, David Kennedy and Stephen Cox.
“The intra-department discord described herein is a major problem affecting the operations of the Fire Department and (as) such shows a lack of organizational control within the Fire Department,” according to the investigation.
Faction one claimed the alcohol allegations were payback for the investigation of Pace and payback from the city manager for an age discrimination claim by Roberts, which Roberts lost. The investigator denied those conspiracy claims as both untrue and irrelevant. Faction one claimed faction two members were hoping for promotions if people were fired because of the alcohol allegations.
“I do not find the nature of such potential testimony to be relevant as to whether the four accused did or did not do the things they are accused of doing by the complaints,” Langley wrote in his 22-page investigation report. Langley added that employee decisions were not in the scope of his investigation. “Allegations rose from the bottom of the chain of command to the city manager,” Langley wrote, giving no merit to the claim by Martin of retaliation from the city manager.
Regardless of motivation, Langley determined the testimony from other firefighters, a camera at a fire station and call logs provided a “preponderance of evidence” confirming the alcohol use.
Langley noted that under the influence is a stricter standard for firefighters than the criminal DUI standard for civilians. The presence of any alcohol in the body “endangers themselves, their fellow Fire Department members, other agencies’ fires responders and the general public,” Langley wrote. He called it conduct “unbecoming of fire service personnel.”
On Dec. 14, 2012, the Fire department held a holiday party at the Friends Café, 220 S. Flagler Beach Ave., on the same street and close by Fire Station 24. The café was closed to the public. Fire personnel were allowed to bring their own alcohol to the party.
Shift C was on duty during the party, including Shift Leader David Kennedy, Firefighter Steve Cox and volunteer Firefighters Ray Turish, Corey Butts and James Moses. Kennedy told the volunteers to change out of uniform if they wanted to drink alcohol.
Kennedy told the investigator he saw Steve Wood filling a cooler of beer with ice for the party at Fire Station 11. Steve Wood and his wife, Diane, also brought apple cider moonshine purchased at a store in Tennessee to the party.
Steve Wood told the investigator he drank five bottles of non-alcoholic beer. He said he’s diabetic and alcohol is bad for him. However, the investigator said a preponderance of evidence, mainly statements by witnesses under oath, determined that Steve Wood had consumed regular alcoholic beer. Witnesses also saw Steve Wood take a sip of the moonshine and eat cherries soaked in the moonshine.
Witnesses also saw Roberts drink wine at the party, although he told the investigator he didn’t like the wine and put it aside. Roberts acknowledged that a second glass of wine was poured for him.
A structure fire was reported at 9:40 p.m. No member of Shift C had consumed alcohol at the party, but the investigator noted that Roberts drank alcohol, responded to the fire call and assumed command of the scene. Roberts also directed Steve Wood to drive Tower 11 to the scene of the fire, even though he knew that Wood had also consumed alcohol at the party. Kennedy had told Roberts not to let anyone who had been drinking respond to the fire.
“Chief Roberts ignored such sound advice by Kennedy, and instead, while having alcohol in his system, Chief Roberts left the Christmas party to respond to the structure fire in his city-issued Chief 11 SUV vehicle,” the investigation noted.
The investigator also wrote that Roberts knew Steve Wood had drank alcohol, but gave Wood permission to respond and allowed him to operate Tower 11.
Barbara Haspiel responded to the fire to direct traffic. She admitted to drinking at the holiday party.
In another alcohol case, on Dec. 24, Jacob Bissonnette contacted Flagler County Sheriff’s Lt. Greg Weston to deliver for purchase two bottles of apple pie flavored faux moonshine, an alcoholic beverage Weston mixed and boiled down at home using 100 proof grain alcohol, sugar and other ingredients, according to the investigation. The drink was more like a homemade cocktail than a moonshine.
Weston arrived at Fire Station 11, out of uniform and not on duty, the investigator reported. Jason Bissonnette and Shane Wood were on duty and together when the jars of alcohol were delivered by Weston. Bissonnette paid about $10 for the cocktail, the investigator noted, then stored the concoction in a Fire Department refrigerator.
A Flagler County Sheriff’s spokesman said a Sheriff’s Office investigation determined the investigator’s report on Weston, the sheriff’s lieutenant, was “unfounded.” The lieutenant had in fact mixed various store-bought alcoholic and other ingredients to make what he called “Apple Pie,” according to an internal investigation, but the investigation concluded that it was not moonshine, and the sale was not conducted as a “business,” but as an exchange between friends that involved the defraying of some of Weston’s costs.
According to the investigation, Bissonnette and Shane Wood each took a sip of the “apple pie” moonshine after other firefighters arrived with food for Christmas dinner and found the alcohol in the refrigerator. Both took the alcohol home at the end of their shift.
The city manager accepted Bissonnette’s claim that he did not drink alcohol during his paid shift, but wrote that “knowingly bringing alcohol onto City property, particularly by a public safety officer to a public safety building, and consuming same on City property, albeit after your shift ended, is a serious violation.” The city manager noted in the letter that he appreciated Bissonnette’s forthrightness, candor and contrition, adding, “this decision was not an easy one for me to make.”
Shane Wood gave conflicting statements during city disciplinary hearings, according to the termination letter from the city manager. “Furthermore, I find (it) curious that on one hand you stated during the pre-disciplinary hearing that you did not possess the alcohol while at the Fire Station, on the other hand, you conceded that you consumed the alcohol while at the Fire Station,” Campbell wrote.
An unrelated investigation resulted in a three-day suspension for Firefighter Bobby Pace. Pace admitted padding the number of hours worked by a woman on probation working community service hours at the Fire Department. “Your explanation for rounding up the time on the time sheets was to reward the parolee for working hard and doing good work,” Campbell, using remarkably dubious reasoning, wrote in a letter to Pace. “I find as a mitigating factor that there was no self-interest being served in your actions; however, the violation is significant and unacceptable.”
It’s the city manager job to hire city employees, including the chief’s post. The City Commission hires only the manager and the city attorney. Mealy, the City Commission chairman, said she talked with Campbell, who told her he would search for a new fire chief, but she did not know how wide the search would be. She would prefer hiring someone from outside to avoid jealousies among people in the department who would be passed over. She also expressed confidence in elevating the volunteers to keep the Fire Department running at full staff.
“All our shifts are covered by staff,” Mealy said. “Hopefully, we can move on from here. The citizens should know that they’re safe.”