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Unpopular firefighter criticizes colleagues

He says he is a Jehovah's Witness and co-workers are intolerant. The city says he's incompetent and should be fired.


© St. Petersburg Times, published July 2, 2000

PINELLAS PARK -- Both sides agree: Barac Wimberly has been an unpopular employee.

City officials say Wimberly has a bad attitude, is incompetent at his job and deserves to be fired. That's why his colleagues don't like him.

For his part, Wimberly says his fellow firefighters didn't like him to begin with, and that's why they judge him harshly. Wimberly said he has endured taunts and hazing, which have soured his attitude, adversely affected his blood pressure and made him wonder about working for the Fire Department.

"I thought long and hard as to whether I would come to this meeting and beg and plead for my job back," Wimberly said Thursday during a hearing to determine if he should be fired. "I realized that, under the conditions which exist in the Fire Department, I'm not sure I want to go back."

City Manager Jerry Mudd likely will decide this week if Wimberly should be let go as Fire Department officials have recommended. Mudd was on vacation last week, but he will receive a report and a tape of Thursday's proceedings when he returns Monday.

Rather than begging for his job, Wimberly chose to criticize the Fire Department by telling about his experiences there.

"One thing we have to face now, whether I remain employed with the city or not, is the mistreatment of employees by other employees and the bias shown against persons because of their personal beliefs," he said.

Wimberly is a Jehovah's Witness, a religious choice that, he said, has caused his problems with co-workers.

Fire Chief Ken Cramer said that's not the case. Two other department employees are Jehovah's Witnesses. Both started out as rank and file firefighters. Both got along well with co-workers and both are now supervisors.

Cramer and other officials have plenty of documents to back up their contention that Wimberly is incompetent.

They cite the times that he slept through alarms, the time that he left medical waste and equipment at the scene of a call. They talk about his failure to improve and his refusal to report daily on his accomplishments after he was ordered to do so. The latest disciplinary action -- suspension without pay and termination hearing -- is the fifth run-in for Wimberly in two years.

"Wimberly has a long, troubled history and has worked unsuccessfully for a number of supervisors," District Chief Art Winquist said at Thursday's hearing.

"His termination has been recommended before and, after 21/2 years of my attempting to improve . . . Wimberly's performance, I find I must concur and also recommend termination."

Cramer recalled that Wimberly far and away was the best of the applicants interviewed for the job, ranking No. 1 on all interviewers' lists. Wimberly should have been a star.

Wimberly said his problems began soon after he was hired. Firefighters "pressured" him into joining the union, but Wimberly said he resisted because union activities would mean he'd have to give up other off-duty pursuits.

"I stated I would not join the union," he said. "This caused people to dislike me, leading to unprovoked verbal attacks and false rumors to be spread about me.

"I continuously got ridiculed for being a "non-member' and jeered for messing up the department's 100 percent union participation."

That led to bad evaluations, Wimberly said, where he was criticized as having "interpersonal problems." He said he was warned he'd have to change or risk losing his job.

So Wimberly decided to join the union, hoping that would end his problems.

Instead, it created another one. Wimberly felt he could not take the union oath as written because of his religious beliefs. He could not, he said, plead his allegiance to the union.

Wimberly asked and received permission to take the oath in a slightly altered version.

"Word got out that I was trying to change the oath process and that again started the aggression," he said. "People now started issues with me because, according to them, I was trying to be better than them. They all had to take (the oath) and I should, too.

"I was a ripple in the pond of Pinellas Park fire and people wanted me gone, regardless of the cost."

The hazing, Wimberly said, included being written up for "minor and insignificant things, things that would be overlooked for other co-workers."

Among the harassments Wimberly says he endured:

He was ordered to wash the dishes because he was the junior firefighter on the shift.

He was told to answer the phone even when someone else was sitting next to it.

He received a letter of reprimand for refusing to help decorate the fire truck with Christmas decorations.

He was written up for "not being a team player."

He wasn't allowed to eat dinner at a fire station when he transferred in late in the day.

In the fire truck, his colleagues talked around him as if he did not exist.

Co-workers never consulted him on meals, although others were asked their preferences.

He was never allowed to cook so he'd have to be the one to clean up.

His colleagues failed to wake him when he slept through alarms on two different occasions.

They called the newspaper to report his troubles so news stories would make it harder for him to get another job.

"I ask you, would you be able to get along with persons that hated you because you were different from them and did everything they could to get you in trouble?" Wimberly asked.

"Would you strive to be such an involved member of a team that persecuted you, ridiculed you, set you up to be disciplined, then displayed for all to see? Do you think you would make much improvement against a force of many trying to keep you down?"

Wimberly conceded he made mistakes, such as wearing earplugs that caused him to sleep through one of the alarms and leaving medical waste and equipment at the scene of a call. But he did not see those examples as cause for other firefighters to dislike him or for him to be fired.

"I can never accept that someone hates me because I take a stand for my religious rights. . .that it is acceptable to dislike and mistreat me because I am not a "good ole boy' and fit into the clique," he said.

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