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Threat limits female fire duty

Clearwater's fire chief will keep women out of blazing buildings after threats are linked to union concerns.

Published September 20, 2005

CLEARWATER - Female firefighters no longer will be allowed to enter burning buildings amid threats that their male colleagues won't protect them, the fire chief said Monday.

Fire Chief Jamie Geer said the threats were made because some of the city's nine female firefighters had discussed leaving the city's fire union. The women were displeased with the union local's leadership, the chief said.

News of the discussion made it to other union members, who relayed messages to the women that if they resigned their membership, they may not make it out of their next structure fire, said City Manager Bill Horne.

Geer said he does not believe the threats were based on gender.

The seriousness or extent of the threats is unknown, and an internal investigation is under way. In the meantime, Geer has ordered all nine women in the 179-person department away from structure fires for the time being.

Female firefighters will still respond to fires and all other typical emergency calls. But when a building is ablaze, women will not be allowed inside, Geer said. Instead, they will be assigned tasks that keep them outside the structure.

Geer said extra firefighters will be dispatched to respond to fires if needed.

The women have been allowed to ask for a transfer or time off, but none of them have so far, said Geer, who has no timetable to complete his investigation.

Geer said he has also notified the city attorney's office and Police Department. Police spokesman Wayne Shelor said detectives are not investigating the allegations.

Union leaders, meanwhile, said they have no details of wrongdoing and called the idea of firefighters threatening other firefighters "far-reaching."

Local union treasurer and secretary Dave Hogan said union leaders were surprised by the complaint.

"We have no information, we have nothing but e-mails and innuendos," Hogan said. "To tell you the truth, I don't think there's a single member of our Fire Department that would threaten anybody, let alone a fellow firefighter."

Geer would not reveal specifics, including who was threatened, when, or how. In explaining why all nine of the female firefighters were subject to the ban, he said he did not want to single out any one accuser.

Geer said he excluded all nine female firefighters for their own safety.

"No matter how credible or serious the threat is, I can't sit back, do nothing, than watch one of our people get hurt," Geer said. "I have to keep them out of harm's way."

Reached Monday, Fire Lt. Anna Rowell, a 12-year veteran, said she was never threatened. She said she did not know who reported the threat.

The eight other female firefighters either could not be reached or did not return messages Monday.

Rowell expressed concern that Geer's order would hurt the standing of all the women in the department.

"We have a very strong union. We have a lot of strong people in the union," Rowell said. "I think they can be intimidating. However, as a firefighter, I have felt nothing but taken care of by the guys in the Fire Department. I never felt ... discrimination in this department until today."

All nine of the city's female firefighters are members of the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 1158, according to city records. One, Jennifer Wargin, is listed as a member of the union's board of trustees, according to its Web site.

Geer discussed the charges and his order a day before union leaders were expected to announce the results today of a confidence vote in their chief, who has been on the job 13 months. The vote has sharpened longstanding tensions between the union and administration. So has a subsequent e-mail from Geer saying firefighters must "cleanse our organization of the disgraceful and incompetent behavior."

In an e-mail to firefighters Saturday about the ban, Geer said the threat carries "the most absolute disgust and concern."

"Can you imagine having your firefighter threatened in any manner?" Geer asked Monday. "Especially by fellow firefighters."

Horne said city officials have heard about allegations of intimidation within the union in the past. Firefighters, he said, would be blackballed or ostracized if they spoke out against union leadership.

Horne said he believed the most recent charges were credible. Two years ago, the union made and displayed an effigy of Horne outside City Hall that some considered racist.

"It's distasteful. It's very unfortunate," Horne said. "I don't believe our female firefighters made this up by any stretch of the imagination."

Female firefighters comprise a small percentage of employees in departments across Tampa Bay and across the nation.

According to Women in the Fire Service Inc., there are 6,200 women serving as firefighters in the United States.

There are 20 female firefighters in the 322-member St. Petersburg Fire Department, said Assistant Chief James Large. He believes all are members of the union.

In Tampa, there are about 25 female firefighters, said Capt. Bill Wade.

--Times staff writers Chris Tisch and Saundra Amrhein contributed to this report.

[Last modified September 20, 2005, 01:54:19]

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