Georgia Firefighter Fired for Refusing to Install Radios

The 14-year veteran said it wasn't part of his job to install radios
Joy Lukachick / Chattanooga Times Free Press Published Wednesday, March 21, 2012

LaFAYETTE, Ga. -- After two-hours of arguments made by a fired firefighter and a packed crowd, council members voted unanimously to uphold the employee's termination.

Johnny Stephens Jr., a 14-year LaFayette employee, was fired two weeks ago after he was given an order by two different supervisors to install a radio in a public works truck.

At Stephens' appeal hearing Tuesday night, he told the council it wasn't part of his job to install radios, but in the last five years he had installed them for the police and fire departments upon request.

City Manager Frank Etheridge told the council that the old radios from the police department had been given to public works because workers in that department didn't have the ability to communicate through radio.

In a written letter to Stephens, Etheridge said that Public Works Director Mark White had coordinated with Safety Directory Tommy Freeman to have the radios installed in the vehicles.

But Stephens pointed out that the city had hired a contractor to install several of the radios in other vehicles. "They were looking for cheap labor," Stephens told the council.

He also told council members that he worked in a hostile environment under Freeman.

When Freeman's name came up in the meeting, several people in the crowd of about 40 residents began to fire off questions to the council, asking why they never had addressed other complaints against Freeman.

But City Councilman Ben Bradford tried to bring the discussion back to Stephens.

Bradford asked Stephens why he didn't file a complaint against Freeman instead of disobeying an order.

"I'm hearing some things tonight for the first time," Bradford said. "I wish you would have handled your frustration in a different way."

Stephens told the council he didn't realize that he could file a complaint.

After the meeting, Freeman said Stephens and others in the crowd were trying to retaliate against him for his decisions. He denied ever yelling at Stephens.

Council members went into an executive session, and when they returned they voted 4-0 to uphold the termination. Councilman Chris Davis had recused himself from the meeting because he said he knew Stephens.

Afterward, Bradford said he had heard some things in the meeting that concerned him.

"Anytime there are allegations made about any employee it concerns me," he said.
 

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Raw Video: Downtown Atlanta Restaurant Fire Raw Video: Fire in Downtown Atlanta Restaurant

5 Atlanta Lieutenants to Keep Titles During Appeal

City attorney argues there's no evidence of cheating
Marcus K. Garner / The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Published Thursday, March 15, 2012

Atlanta--A state appeals court Wednesday halted a judge's order to demote five Atlanta firefighters linked to a tainted promotion exam.

Three other firefighters led a class-action lawsuit contending the city did nothing to address the cheating allegation, and a jury agreed with them.

But the city on Tuesday appealed the decision of Fulton County Superior Court Judge Kelly A. Lee that the five firefighters who scored 90 or higher--- an unprecedented mark --- on the 2010 promotion written exam lose their provisional lieutenant status as of today, and be replaced by seven candidates who scored between 60 and 62 on the test.

"There has been no evidence that there had been any cheating," Deputy City Attorney Eric Richardson contended Wednesday evening in a phone interview.

Firefighters Roderick Armstrong, Victor Bennett and Jason Johnson filed the suit last year, saying the city didn't investigate allegations that an undisclosed number of Atlanta Fire Rescue employees cheated or were illegally helped on the April 2010 exam.

While the jury didn't identify any cheaters, Lee, in her decision last week, alluded that the top scorers should be scrutinized.

"If the people who scored the top scores --- who never scored them before --- didn't cheat, then who did?" she asked during the motions hearing to determine how much the city had to pay in legal fees.

Lee ruled that about 110 employees, including the five top performers, would be eligible to retest, and that the test should be administered by an independent testing agency.

But city officials argued that if the demotions went through as scheduled, it would constitute a direct attack on those five firefighters.

"Five firefighters will lose their jobs," the appellate decision read, citing the city's contention.

Lee Parks, who represents the three plaintiffs and the 160 other Atlanta Fire employees in the class action, could not be reached Wednesday evening for comment.

Richardson added to his concerns for the five firefighters who would be affected by Lee's injunction.

"Ordering these firefighters to retake a test denies them due process and full protection," he said. "They were never sued. The lawsuit was against the city."

While the appeal asks a higher court to explore the verdict rendered last month, Richardson said it also helps to maintain the status quo.

"What this does is allow all the firefighters to stay in their current positions while we argue the merits of the appeal," he said.
 

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Georgia Woman Rescued from Trash Cute

5 Atlanta Lieutenants Stripped of Promotions; Independent Retests Ordered

City will also have to pay $320,000 to firefighters who brought the suit
Marcus K. Garner / The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Published Thursday, March 8, 2012

Atlanta - The City of Atlanta will have to pay three of its firefighters $320,000 for legal fees from a class action lawsuit claiming city officials did nothing to address allegations of cheating on a fire department promotion test, a judge ruled Wednesday.

Fulton County Superior Court Judge Kelly A. Lee also ruled that five Atlanta firefighters who scored higher than a 90 on the city's written test for lieutenant will be stripped of their provisional promotions and corresponding pay until an independent retest can be given.

The lawsuit, filed last year, alleged the city didn't fully investigate cheating allegations raised against an undisclosed number of firefighters who took the April 2010 exam.

Last month, a jury ruled in favor of three firefighters who claimed, on behalf of 160 other fire employees who took the test, that two assistant chiefs provided answers to several firefighters before the exam.

Deputy City Attorney Eric Richardson objected to the jury verdict and the judge's decision. He said the city intends to appeal the ruling.

"There's been no proof . . . no direct evidence of cheating," Richardson said.

The jury didn't indicate which individuals cheated, but Lee on Wednesday pointed at the top scorers when she made her decision to invalidate their promotions.

"If the people who scored the top scores --- who never scored them before --- didn't cheat, then who did?" she asked during the hearing.

In addition to stripping the titles, Lee ruled that about 110 employees who scored 60 or more on the exam will be eligible to retest and that the exam will be administered by an independent testing agency.

It remained unclear if an independent testing agency will become an ongoing requirement. All firefighters who retake and pass the test and are promoted will be paid retroactively to the date of the first test.

About 80 firefighters were promoted from the first exam.

Lee Parks, the attorney for the firefighters who brought the lawsuit, echoed demands of the Atlanta chapter of the International Association of Fire Fighters that the city conduct an investigation of who cheated and who enabled the cheating.

Parks suggested that criminal charges be sought.

"Right now, Atlanta Public School teachers are sitting in the district attorney's office because they did what these fire department members did," he said. "This is not an administrative issue. We're talking about criminal activity."

Richardson said the city wouldn't pursue an internal investigation until the lawsuit is closed.

Lee will finalize her judgment, including details for the company to conduct the retest and the cost, on Friday. Richardson said he will ask at that time that she change her decision to reverse the promotions.
 

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DeKalb County Firefighters Question Quality of SCBA after Malfunctions, Failures

Confidence from firefighters lacking, Drager blames lack of proper maintenance.
APRIL HUNT, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Published Friday, February 24, 2012

After 25 'near misses,' firefighters demand new air packs. Executive defends company's products.

The company that makes the air packs that DeKalb County firefighters say have malfunctioned from Day 1 is expected to offer a solution to the problem by today.

But even if Drager Safety offers 330 new devices to replace the entire fleet in use for free, fire Chief Edward O'Brien said the price is too high.

"The confidence level is just not there," O'Brien said. "Given the three-year track record we've had, it is just not a good fit for us."

Tim Martin, Drager's vice president of sales, met with O'Brien this week to go over concerns about the packs, which provide compressed air for firefighters to breathe as they battle blazes.

Martin said the Pittsburgh company stood by its product, with more than 1 million in use worldwide. He blamed lack of proper maintenance for the 22 "near misses" with malfunctioning and failing packs in the field during the first 18 months after they came online in DeKalb in 2009.

Specifically, he said he and his team found O-rings without lubrication as well as dirt and other particles clogging important pieces of the gear.

"We cannot overstate the importance of knowing how to maintain this equipment," Martin said. "We are not confident the maintenance program is robust enough in DeKalb."

O'Brien countered that basic maintenance is always done after a fire. But in the busy department --- which handled 371 structure fires last year --- there often isn't time for significant work on equipment.

"Firefighting is a dirty, nasty job, and we can't take our packs out of service after every fire," he said. "We have to be able to wash it off and go, because sometimes we're heading right out to another fire."

Martin would not comment on what potential solutions the firm would offer to get the air packs back in condition. Drager already has trained nearly four dozen DeKalb County firefighters how to properly care for the gear, he said.

County leaders may want far more than additional training or support. Calls for legal action against Drager increased this week, especially after officials learned three more packs had problems last weekend. In the most severe case, a broken mouthpiece on one pack forced a firefighter inside a burning home to rush outside for air.

"We are looking into all of our options, including those in the legal arena," county spokesman Burke Brennan said.

"If we have to completely replace this equipment, I'm in support of going after them for our expenditures," Commissioner Elaine Boyer said. "It's not just money spent. It's about the safety of our firefighters."

The commission is expected to approve taking $2 million out of the Fire Department's rainy day fund when it votes on the 2012 budget Tuesday. That would cover costs to buy all new packs, which is what O'Brien has requested.

He wants to look at several other manufacturers, not Drager. The new gear would not be in use until summer because of purchasing rules.

Firefighters welcome the possibility of new air packs. Many have told Nathan Leota, president of the DeKalb Professional Firefighters Local No. 1492, they are nervous about the gear. They want to be able to rush to calls focused on the fires, not whether their equipment might have problems, he said.

"This is the most important piece of equipment for a firefighter, and we take very good care of it because it protects us," Leota said. "To keep using them, it's not a gamble I'm willing to take with our members."

Martin said he didn't know until this week that DeKalb was considering replacing its air packs or that the issue had become contentious. He and O'Brien agreed they had a productive meeting this week to lay out concerns and possible solutions.

He disagreed, though, that the packs are to blame and said it "doesn't sit well" to hear firefighters are uneasy with Drager products.

"We obviously have a common goal, and that is to keep firefighters in DeKalb County safe," Martin said. "We are working with DeKalb and will continue working with them for as long as they have the equipment to make sure their people are safe."

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Atlanta Man Suffers Third-Degree Burns Helping 5 Children Escape from House Fire

None of the children was injured in the fire
Joel Anderson, Mike Morris / The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Published Friday, February 17, 2012

Atlanta - An Atlanta man was hospitalized for smoke inhalation and burns after escaping an early Thursday morning apartment fire that destroyed the home of his family of seven.

Lance Ferrell was being treated for third-degree burns to his legs and one of his hands at Grady Memorial Hospital, according to girlfriend Chantale Johnson.

"They say it's going to take a while for him to recover," Johnson said.

The blaze broke out before 2:30 a.m. at the Edgewood Court apartments on Hardee Street in Atlanta's Edgewood neighborhood.

Johnson said she was preparing for bed when she smelled smoke. She turned on the lights and noticed smoke already had filled the small home.

Ferrell woke the five children from their slumber, she said, rounded them up and quickly ushered them outside. He handed his month-old son to a neighbor who lived in a unit below theirs.

Johnson said she remained inside, using some old blankets to try to put out the fire. Ferrell returned and tried to douse the blaze with water, but the flames grew higher, she said.

Johnson escaped uninjured, and none of the children was hurt. They are staying with a friend at the apartment complex. The family lost clothes, furniture and food. But, as neighbor Evelyn Hall said, they got out with each other.

"I was scared for them," she said. "But they're going to be OK."

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Wind-Driven Fire Damages Georgia Auto Dealership

Over a dozen cars damaged as flames swpet the sales lot.
U.S. Auto Sales at 306 Atlanta Road in Cumming up in flames. (Liz Kennedy/CummingPatch.com photo)
Published Monday, February 13, 2012

CUMMING, Ga. (CummingPatch.com) - A raging fire destroyed U.S. Auto Sales on Atlanta Road (Highway 9) in Cumming Sunday afternoon, producing a cloud of black smoke that could be seen across Georgia 400 between exits 14 and 15.

No one was injured in the fire, according to Battalion Chief Jimmy Hildebrand of the Forsyth County Fire Department. It is unknown when the fire was first reported, but Cumming Patch was on the scene shortly after 1 p.m. At that time flames were consuming the structure and when firefighters had the blaze under control, at least 14 vehicles were destroyed.

Hildebrand told Cumming Patch the owner of the used car dealership has been notified, but the cause of the fire is unknown and currently under investigation.

Firefighters from Gwinnett, Alpharetta and Cherokee were on the scene working the blaze. Members of Forsyth County Fire were attending the funeral of Mark Aycock, 42, a veteran of the FCFD who died last week after losing his battle with cancer.

According to Capt. Jason Shivers of the FCFD, the county is being covered by neighboring fire departments as a courtesy protocol when one department attends the funeral of a fallen firefighter as in the case of Forsyth County Fire on Sunday.

"All of our stations are being covered by neighboring departments," said Shivers. "Before we pulled any of our units out of service we had other departments in place."

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Wind-Driven Fire Damages Cars at Georgia Dealership

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