Former Firefighter Sues SC City, Alleges Sexual Harassment, Assault

Chris Trainor

The State (Columbia, S.C.)

(MCT)

Oct. 12—A former Columbia firefighter whose complaint touched off an internal investigation that unveiled a raucous, “over-sexed” environment at an Atlas Road firehouse is now suing the city.

According to court documents filed Oct. 8, the former firefighter is alleging that, for months, he was subjected to “sexual harassment and assaults” carried out by some employees at Columbia Fire Station 8 on Atlas Road.

Earlier: Report: Toxic Environment at Columbia (SC) Fire Department’s Station 8

The lawsuit alleges that other firefighters tried to hold the plaintiff down on his bed and remove his clothes, attempted to corner him in the shower, “berated” him to show his genitalia, and made other efforts to view his genitalia.

The State is not naming the firefighter because the lawsuit says he is a victim of sexual harassment and assault.

Five firefighters were fired in May in connection with an internal investigation at Station 8. The dismissals were the result of what had been a nearly month-long investigation. Initial documents provided to The State in June alleged 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.

In June, The State filed a Freedom of Information Act request seeking internal affairs documents related to the Station 8 investigation. Those documents were provided earlier this month.

The investigative documents concluded that, in the months preceding the investigation, the first shift at Station 8 had a “substantial leadership failure which has fostered an over-sexed culture laden with unacceptable conversation, pranks that far exceed the bounds of professional conduct, and offensive touching.”

The investigation found that the conduct might have been occurring for as much as six to eight months before coming to command staff’s attention, though the report alleges that station leadership permitted the activities.

The activities at the station came to light in April when a firefighter at Station 8 walked off the job. When contacted about why he left, he reportedly replied in a text message that he “couldn’t take the sexual crap anymore.”

“It’s one thing to talk,” the firefighter reportedly wrote. “But it’s totally another to snatch someone out of their bed and try and rip their shorts off and other stuff. … I can’t sit through another dinner/night of this.”

That firefighter is the one who is now suing the city.

The lawsuit said that “attacks on (the plaintiff) took place nearly every shift” and took place throughout the station.

The full internal affairs investigation alleges a raft of inappropriate behavior at the station house, including nudity in hallways and common areas outside of bedrooms and bathrooms, butt-slapping in the shower, wedgies, pulling people’s pants down and an alleged “overwhelming infatuation” with comparing the size of male genitalia. Command staff investigators said they also saw a short video of a nude firefighter in the station bay being sprayed with a water hose.

And the internal affairs probe also alleges a swath of other behavior, not all of which was tinged with sexual harassment. It talks of initiations in which water buckets were poured on firefighters, and one where flour is poured on a firefighter. There were allegations of “glitter initiations” in which glitter was put in firefighters’ beds, gloves and fire boots. It alleges wrestling in virtually every room of the station house, including “wrestling in limited clothing and, perhaps, naked.”

The lawsuit said that the plaintiff “has suffered reputational loss, been embarrassed, humiliated, and has sustained mental anguish” because of what happened at Station 8. He is seeking damages, to be determined by a jury. The suit does not name a specific dollar amount.

The plaintiff is also alleging that city leaders, including fire department command staff, Fire Chief Aubrey Jenkins and members of Columbia City Council were “fully aware and knowledgeable for months — if not years — as to the toxic culture and conduct occurring at Station 8.”

Jason Reynolds, an attorney for the plaintiff, declined comment on the lawsuit. City of Columbia spokeswoman Leshia Utsey said the city doesn’t comment on pending litigation.

The fire department’s administrative investigation into the behavior at Station 8 did land on investigators’ desks at the Columbia Police Department, per a police spokeswoman. Ultimately, police did not charge anyone.

This story was originally published October 12, 2021 10:10 AM.

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