Five fired after incidents at Lower Richland firehouse
Chris Trainor, The State (Columbia, S.C.)
Jun. 14–Some top Columbia officials were tight-lipped Monday following the public revelation that nearly a half-dozen firefighters have recently been fired following alleged incidents that included, among other things, “inappropriate touching” at a Lower Richland fire station.
According to city records The State received in response to a Freedom of Information Act request, five Columbia Fire Department employees were fired on May 7 in connection to an internal investigation into fire Station 8, located at 933 Atlas Road. The dismissals were the result of a nearly month-long probe of what is referred to as “allegations of sexual misconduct” in city paperwork.
News of the investigation and firings was first reported by The Post and Courier.
Fire department disciplinary action forms for the five firefighters don’t offer clear detail as to exactly what happened at the station house. But the documents allege a raft of workplace policy violations against the now-dismissed firemen, including conduct unbecoming of city employees, dereliction of duty, horseplay and unsafe activities, insubordination and more.
According to city records, the five dismissed employees are Battalion Chief Christopher Gates, Capt. Brandon Cook, Capt. Jason McIntyre, Fire Engineer Dustin Ailes and Senior Firefighter Patrick Humphries.
When reached by phone, longtime Columbia Fire Chief Aubrey Jenkins said he could not share details about the investigation.
“I can’t talk about it, because it’s a personnel issue,” said Jenkins, who has been with the capital city’s fire department for 42 years. When asked about any changes the department might make in light of the investigation and firings, Jenkins declined expansive comment, saying that he is still processing the results of the probe.
Meanwhile, at-large City Councilman Howard Duvall, who represents constituents citywide, said the council had been made aware of the investigation by city staff.
“We were briefed about it several months back, that there was an investigation going on,” Duvall told The State. However, he declined further comment on the matter, noting it was a legal and personnel matter.
The State has reached out to third-term Mayor Steve Benjamin, as well as the Columbia Firefighters Association, a group that advocates for members of the capital city’s fire service.
Disciplinary action forms for the five dismissed firefighters allege they either witnessed, knew about, were present for, or engaged in “conversations concerning topics that are unacceptable in the workplace” and “pranks that far exceed the bounds of professional conduct.” The reports also allege there were instances of “inappropriate touching” at the station.
Jenkins penned letters to each of the five firefighters on May 7, informing them of the termination of their employment.
City paperwork indicates that an internal affairs investigation into the activities at Station 8 began in mid-April. The subsequent disciplinary reports are unclear as to when any misconduct took place, saying only that the infractions happened at “various times” over the course of “several months.”
In each of the letters from Jenkins to the fire department employees, it is alleged that they played a part in the misconduct at the station.
“During the course of this investigation, it was determined that you had a major role in the misconduct, and you failed to properly address and correct the issues; this constituted a ‘dereliction of duty on your part,'” Jenkins wrote to Gates, the battalion chief. “It was also determined that you participated in some of the misconduct, which is ‘conduct unbecoming of a city employee.'”
The battalion chief also was accused in the internal papers of minimizing an allegation of sexual misconduct and not reporting it to his bosses.
This is not the first time there has been an alleged troubling environment in the fire department. Back in 2016, City Manager Teresa Wilson commissioned a consultant to do a sprawling survey of the fire service after some isolated incidents, one of which included a fire captain “goosing” a young firefighter and dismissing it as horseplay.
The city ultimately had to cough up $50,000 to settle that case, according to reporting from The State at that time.
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