A White River Township firefighter has been suspended for six weeks without pay after sending a text message to an off-duty battalion chief about a potential fire hazard he saw instead of speaking with his direct supervisor.
But the fire district board said the breach in regulations is just the latest of several examples of the firefighter acting beyond the authority of his position and disregarding the chain of command, according to a document laying out the discipline case and punishment.
Fire district board members this week unanimously approved suspending full-time firefighter Eric Brown without pay for six weeks. The chief had asked that Brown be fired.
Fire Chief Jeremy Pell originally recommended the board fire Brown for “an unwillingness to improve and consistently conform his behavior within the framework established for the conduct of a White River Township Fire Protection District employee,” according to the document.
The suspension is not the first time the fire department and Brown have clashed. Brown sued the fire department previously, alleging violations of the American with Disabilities Act after he said he was put on leave and suspended due to disciplinary actions resulting from a seizure disorder he has. He later was demoted from his positions as fire marshal and battalion commander after the fire department brought 16 discipline charges against him for breaking department rules and abusing his position.
Since December 2008, Brown has been suspended four times, most recently including a 24-hour suspension in January 2014. He also recently had been required to meet with the department’s training chief and fire marshal to review his responsibilities as firefighter and engineer and review how to follow the chain of command within the fire department.
Brown began working for White River Township Fire Department part time in September 1994. He has been a full-time firefighter for 17 years, Pell said. Brown’s annual salary with the fire department is $55,921.
Brown declined to comment about the suspension after the fire district board’s vote.
Following the chain of command is critical in the fire department to create efficiency and maintain order among employees, Pell said. Supervisors and administrators have additional responsibilities to vet possible issues, review information about possible fire safety violations or direct firefighters and make decisions in emergencies, Pell said.
“You do expect firefighters to bring things to attention of the right person, but it flows upwards to the subject matter experts,” Pell said. “In any paramilitary organization and especially in the fire service, it’s applicable in everything we do, but it’s absolutely vital in emergency scenes and preparing for emergency situations. There are times when firefighters are expected to follow orders because they don’t have all the information.”
The incident occurred in September, while Brown was working an overtime shift as an engineer. Brown and other firefighters who were on duty, including the lieutenant who was directly supervising Brown for the day, traveled to a store on State Road 135 to pick up groceries for the fire station. When they arrived at the store, they noticed a temporary stage had been set up for a public event and the stage was blocking the fire lane. After finishing their shopping, the firefighters were discussing the possible fire code violations and safety issues they had noticed on the way back to the station.
Brown took photos of the access road and entrance that were affected and texted them to battalion chief Kevin Skipper, who previously worked as the fire department’s deputy fire marshal and still assisted with some fire prevention activities upon request of administrators. Skipper was off-duty that day. Brown did not tell his lieutenant he was contacting anyone in the fire prevention division and was not instructed to do so. Brown does not have the authority to do so in his position with the fire department, Pell said.
After they got back to the fire station, the lieutenant who was Brown’s supervisor that day called his supervisor to report the fire safety concerns at the store. Meanwhile Skipper forwarded the photos to the fire marshal and offered to go to the store to address them. The marshal spoke with Skipper and determined it wouldn’t be necessary, then called the on-duty battalion chief to address the issue. The battalion chief already had heard the concerns from the lieutenant, who had properly reported the issue up the chain of command.
“There is no argument that there was something going on there and there is no argument that it was being handled. Back to the chain of command, we can’t have every firefighter go and complain about every business. So you send it through the chain of command, and those officers have expertise and know what’s going on in the community and fire department that day,” Pell said.
Fire marshal Michael Arany testified during a discipline hearing that he wasn’t surprised that Brown had sent the photographs to Skipper, because he thought Brown “knew he could get under (Skipper’s) skin and probably make him go up there that minute and go look at it,” according to the document.
Pell filed the violation, seeking to have Brown fired for repeated violations of fire department code in October. The fire department had internally noted other violations earlier that year.
He was suspended for 24 hours and required to attend training in February 2014. Two days after the suspension, Brown broke rules again by attempting to troubleshoot a malfunctioning fire alarm at a day care, disconnecting the backup battery in the process. The resulting disciplinary documents from that incident noted that Brown was told he could notify the fire prevention division but was later clarified that he should follow the chain of command and report it to his supervisor.
Those incidents were the most recent after ongoing clashes between Brown and the fire department between 2008 and 2011.
Brown sued the fire district in 2010, alleging they violated the Americans with Disabilities Act when the fire department wouldn’t let him return to work after he was diagnosed with a seizure disorder. Between November 2008 and January 2009, the fire department cited him four times for violations and suspended him without pay, according to the court filing. That case was settled out of court and was dismissed in October 2011.
While the lawsuit was pending in court, Brown was removed from his position as fire marshal and demoted from a supervisory position as part of a settlement for 16 other discipline violations. Those allegations included claims that he had abused his authority as fire marshal by taking actions such as issuing fines without proper evidence, threatening to shut down construction sites without justification and informing construction workers to ignore county building inspectors and planning staff. Those violations were dismissed after Brown and the fire district reached an agreement that he would accept a demotion and agree not to pursue legal action.