Steamy firehouse raises an eyebrow
County Commissioner Ronda Storms says it's time to do something about the sordid goings-on at Fire Rescue.
By SHANNON COLAVECCHIO-VAN SICKLER
Published May 17, 2005
TAMPA - The report from human resources reads like the plot of a soap opera set inside a firehouse.
A county fire medic finds out his wife, also a fire medic, is having an affair with a longtime firefighter who used to be her boss. He complains to human resources, saying the affair violates county policy regarding personal relationships between subordinates and their supervisors. Then, the longtime firefighter's wife comes to the fire station where the girlfriend works and tells firefighters there she wants to "bash her face in."
"I know where she works," the wife warns before storming off.
Turns out, this drama was no steamy fiction.
The longtime firefighter was Newell "Chip" Branam, now divorced and working as Hillsborough County Fire Rescue's personnel chief. The girlfriend was medic Christine Montgomery, now divorced from medic David Montgomery.
The investigation found Branam and Christine Montgomery didn't violate any policies because they started dating after he left his job as battalion chief at the station where she was a medic.
But more than a year later, the little-known internal inquiry has caught the eye of County Commissioner Ronda Storms, who says she is concerned by recent eyebrow-raising incidents at the department - including allegations of work schedule abuses, Internet pornography and sexual harassment by department leaders.
Storms says she's convinced it's time for a "serious and frank discussion" about the 750-employee fire department.
In her six years on the dais, Storms has pushed for investigations of wrongdoing at the county's transit agency, the county attorney's office and the water department. But she declined Monday to give details about what she might propose at Wednesday's commission meeting regarding the fire department, saying she doesn't want to "tip my hand."
"I do want to talk about what is going on in this department, because it's an implosion," Storms said. "I don't know how else to describe it."
The department's very public woes began last summer, when then-county Fire Marshal Donald Goff abruptly retired amid an FBI inquiry into his pornographic Internet activities involving children.
Goff pleaded guilty earlier this year to federal charges of possessing child porn and transferring obscene materials to a minor. He is serving a 37-month sentence at a federal prison in Texas.
According to a department memo, Goff had pornographic Web links on his computer at work and visited personal ad sites during work hours.
The 2002 internal investigation of Goff's work computer found that on at least one occasion, someone other than him used his computer to access inappropriate material.
That concerns Storms.
"They had serious issues with people visiting inappropriate sites, and it's the leadership doing this stuff, not the rank and file," Storms said. "We can't pretend this elephant isn't in the room."
Fire Chief William Nesmith hired former Clearwater Fire Marshal Randy Hinder to replace Goff. But in March, Nesmith fired Hinder, who had been accused of sexually harassing two fire department employees. Nesmith said he fired Hinder not because of the sexual harassment claims but because he "promoted mistrust and suspicious feelings among his employees."
That wasn't the last of the department's problems.
Last month, the longtime captain of the Seffner-Mango volunteer fire station quit after county fire officials discovered that he posted pictures of himself nude and in uniform on an adult Internet dating site.
Bradley Price, 48, also was accused of sexually harassing a subordinate female firefighter whom he showered with gifts including stuffed Tigger dolls.
Meanwhile, the county attorney's office is looking into whether some fire department employees abused the longstanding "exchange of time" provision that allows employees to work one another's shifts.
In a handful of cases, firefighters used the provision - outlined in the union-negotiated contract - to work just a fraction of their scheduled shifts. Yet they got pay and benefits for working their full loads.
"I have never seen As The Fire Department Turns ," Leslie Thompson, a member of the Seffner-Mango station's board of directors, said of the department turmoil. "But that's what all this is."
--Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler can be reached at 813 226-3373 or firstname.lastname@example.org
[Last modified May 17, 2005, 01:36:07]
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