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Cleaning the firehouse

Responding to public outrage at disclosures of firefighter misconduct at the Porn Star Costume Ball, Sacramento City Manager Bob Thomas said Tuesday the city is creating an internal affairs unit for the Fire Department and placing firefighters' behavior under the scrutiny of the Office of Police Accountability.

The announcement of the structural reform came as the department's chief, Julius Cherry, said he was dismissing two of the firefighters involved and suspending three others.

Three weeks ago, seven firefighters - including a captain - were placed on paid administrative leave for attending the Radisson Hotel event July 2, where guests were invited to dress up as porn stars and mingle with adult film performers.

"There is no question in my mind that public trust has been violated relative to the Radisson incident," said Thomas, who was joined by Mayor Heather Fargo, Cherry and several City Council members at a City Hall press conference.

Officials are still trying to determine whether they will discipline a fourth firefighter who attended the ball and who, in a previous incident, took a city ambulance on a pleasure trip to Old Sacramento on New Year's Eve 2001.

Don Casimere, who investigates complaints about the Sacramento Police Department for the city manager's office, will expand his duties to include the fire service, Thomas said. The Fire Department will establish an internal affairs investigative arm, a first in the region. It will be modeled on similar units used by police agencies, Thomas added.

Fargo called the Fire Department investigation a "pretty serious situation," but stressed that most of Sacramento's 522 sworn firefighters do their jobs with professionalism.

While the Porn Star revelations shocked city officials, disclosures from the subsequent investigation rattled them further, as they learned how firefighters from several stations routinely cruised bars and dance clubs, drank on duty and picked up women and gave them rides on fire vehicles.

Thomas said the department already has addressed the drinking through disciplinary actions, though the city was still investigating, particularly into the role of management accountability.

"We need to do more," Thomas said.

In its afternoon session, the City Council created a task force to review Fire Department policies and protocols and agreed to establish an internal affairs division for the fire service. Cherry, who will lead the task force, will present recommendations to the council by the end of the year.

Casimere's unit will be renamed the Office of Public Safety and Accountability. Its job will be to take citizen complaints about both departments and oversee large internal investigations.

"I think it is long overdue for them to be talking about some type of internal affairs division," said Brian Rice, president of Sacramento Area Firefighters Local 522.

The reforms came as attorneys in Sacramento pressed forward with a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by a woman firefighter against the city and a male firefighter in 2003.

The lawsuit alleges firefighters from Station 6 in Oak Park wrote an obscene word on the woman's ax handle and placed a picture in her locker showing a doll with a noose around its neck, duct tape over its mouth and a gun pointed at its head. After a lengthy investigation, no firefighters were disciplined for the incidents.

The seven firefighters present at the Porn Star event have been on leave since July 3, when a 24-year-old woman told police that an on-duty firefighter sexually assaulted her in the Radisson parking lot in one of the department's grass fire rigs.

An investigation tracking the movements of three fire vehicles that night - an engine, a grass fire rig and an ambulance - determined that six Station 20 firefighters were in the vehicles and away from the station house for two hours.

A seventh firefighter, who was off duty, met them at the ball and apparently was in the grass fire rig.

The investigation determined the woman was in the grass fire rig around 11:30 p.m. with the off-duty firefighter, who Tuesday was sent a termination letter, and a 10-year veteran firefighter, who resigned from the department July 15. The Sacramento County District Attorney's Office has since determined there was not enough evidence to pursue the sexual assault allegations.

City officials refused to release the names of the firefighters involved. City Manager Thomas said the five men still employed have appeal rights and should not be named until the process is finished.

Two firefighters on the ambulance are being suspended without pay for two 24-hour shifts. The engine driver faces suspension totalling 10 shifts - the most severe discipline short of termination.

Dee Contreras, director of the city's labor relations department, said the notices of intent to dismiss and intent to discipline were sent Tuesday, starting a hearing process. The captain and off-duty firefighters will remain on paid administrative leave until they have a hearing in about two weeks.

"It is to make sure we don't have the wrong person," Con treras said.


About the Writer

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The Bee's Elizabeth Hume can be reached at (916) 321-1203 or ehume@sacbee.com.

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