Firefighters can’t say they weren’t warned.
A new professional standards program at Cal Fire is giving the department a mechanism to hand down discipline in a consistent manner across the state for the first time in its history.
It’s racking up pay reductions, suspensions and dismissals at a rate that rivals scandal-plagued 2014 — the year when an instructor at its fire academy murdered his mistress and brought intense scrutiny on the department.
The program’s advocates say it is long overdue, but the sudden application of harsh discipline is surprising firefighters and raising concerns that Cal Fire is unnecessarily wasting its investment in employees it spent years training.
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Take the crackdown on academy cadets last fall who at different times after hours had a drink at Amador County bars. Thirty-one of them were dismissed from their jobs and 12 more were suspended for not reporting on their peers.
“It’s crazy that the department is throwing these people away,” said Tim Edwards, the rank and file director for the union that represents Cal Fire firefighters. "Now we're heading into fire season with 43 fewer engineers. What do you think that's going to do?"
The department in the budget year that began in July has terminated 56 seasonal employees, the most since the 2014 academy scandal. Some of them regularly worked nine months in a year and earned about $100,000 in annual wages.
With two months to go in this state budget year, another 58 year-round firefighters have received notices of adverse action, with discipline ranging from temporary pay reductions to dismissal of veterans. That’s up from 33 in 2012 and 45 in 2013.
The department lobbied to create the new standards program after the 2014 homicide and received a $4.4 million budget boost from Gov. Jerry Brown to build it two years ago.
Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott has distributed annual code of conduct reminders describing the standards program, and the program’s director has been visiting fire stations around the state to answer questions about it.
The program is supposed to offer far more than a disciplinary process. It’s intended to give managers more training and to instill professional standards across a department with 7,000 employees.
So far, though, firefighters are mostly talking about the discipline and sharing tales about employees who got away with misconduct that today is no longer tolerated.
“Historically there was a lack of consistency with regard to how all of these processes worked. Discipline in the south could be different in the north,” said Monte Mason, the program’s director. “Individuals will be able to bring up past inconsistency. There, you got us, we’re guilty, but going forward, we’re looking for more consistency."
The Sacramento Bee reviewed 95 recent notices of adverse action that it obtained through a Public Records Act request to the State Personnel Board. It’s not a complete set of disciplinary actions because the personnel board does not keep the cases after 30 days unless the employee appeals his or her punishment.
Separately, four firefighters who were punished for drinking at the academy last fall shared details about their cases but asked to remain anonymous because they are appealing their dismissals and fear retaliation.
The records show that the department is expelling anyone who commits a serious crime or drinks alcohol during a shift. It’s also dismissing firefighters who investigators believe are misleading when confronted with lesser misconduct allegations.
"We have policies in place that address employee conduct including zero tolerance for drinking on duty. It's the public expectation that our firefighters be ready to respond at anytime while on duty and not be under the influence of alcohol," Pimlott said in a message he wrote to The Bee.
The dismissals include:
- Doyle Head, a fire captain with 23 years of experience, was disciplined because he didn't properly report a break he took that would have allowed him to drink alcohol at a May 2016 celebration honoring firefighters who participated in Lake County's deadly Valley Fire. On the night of the celebration, he also helped another firefighter leave an accident scene before reporting it to police, according to his notice of adverse action. Head reached a settlement that required him to resign, according to the State Personnel Board. Two higher-ranking officers received discipline because they were not aware that firefighters at one of their stations had taken a break that left the region understaffed.
- A high-ranking assistant chief who supervised law enforcement training at the Cal Fire Academy. Gabriel Santos was arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence of alcohol in September 2014, five months after he was promoted to his post at the academy. Cal Fire believed he was evasive with the California Highway Patrol officer who pulled him over. Cal Fire officials also believe he was not forthcoming about conditions on his driver’s license in the following year. Cal Fire moved to dismiss him in April 2016. CalPERS records show he reached a settlement that compelled his resignation.
- Tim Gordon, a fire captain with 13 years of experience, was dismissed for disorderly conduct off duty. He and his family celebrated his daughter’s 21 st birthday in San Diego in May 2016. He and bar staff had an argument that escalated, and security placed him in handcuffs. The San Diego district attorney declined to prosecute him. He later reached an agreement that allowed him to return to work with a demotion.
One of the dismissed academy firefighters said he drank a beer after he passed all of his tests. He could have gone home that night but stayed in Amador County. He and his peers were considered graduates of the course, although they were scheduled to spend another workweek there.
The firefighter acknowledged he had the beer when the department opened its investigation, and lost his job, he said.
Another firefighter admitted having a drink one night midway through the academy.
“When I got a letter saying there was an investigation, I came forward and told them right off the bat. Right away, I was like I want to clarify, I did have that one shot, I made that bad choice,” the firefighter said.
Firefighters at the academy could be called to service in an emergency, but it’s unlikely. They’re not assigned to engines during their training. They're expected to remain sober and considered on-call for the duration of their training.
Generations of firefighters have attended bars in their down time at the academy, so much so that The Sacramento Bee in 2015 reported that firefighters were known to call ahead to ask certain bars to extend their hours.
That culture lingers, despite the high-profile crackdown on drinking that followed the scandals in 2014.
The firefighters disciplined recently "violated a code of conduct. They were briefed on it, and they violated it," said department Deputy Director Michael Mohler.
Some of the firefighters have hired attorneys and are appealing their discipline. Year-round firefighters will get help from their union.
“Does the union condone our members drinking on duty? Absolutely not,” said Edwards, the union leader. “But in this situation, they were finally going to be permanent personnel at the Department of Forestry, so they went out to celebrate.
“These guys spend six, seven, eight years training to get permanent at the department, and when you finally get the revelation that you finally made it, as a person, it’s understandable that you want to go out and celebrate that,” he said.
Seasonal firefighters have fewer appeal rights and are hiring private lawyers. Dan Thompson, an attorney at a Gold River law firm that often represents public safety employees, said he’s spoken with eight of the dismissed academy cadets.
"I am always skeptical of a public agency outright dismissing employees for an infraction, particularly if those employees are long-term employees with no prior discipline of significance and into whom the state has invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in training," he said.
Cal Fire's union last month sent an appeal to its 6,000 members asking them to donate hours of personal leave to their labor officers because their representatives are spending so much time in disciplinary hearings. "It is unfortunate over the last few years the department has taken a more drastic approach with disciplinary actions, causing the need to use release time to represent our members," the message read.
"This one is a knee-jerk reaction from (the homicide scandal) four years ago, and we have to get over four years ago," Edwards said.
This article was updated on Tuesday, May 29 to reflect that Capt. Tim Gordon returned to work.