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Saturday May 26th 2018

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Harassment in the Firehouse

By Rick Outzen

On Monday, Jan. 29, Rick’s Blog broke the news that the Escambia Board of County Commissioners may have to settle a harassment claim regarding a female professional firefighter. Later that afternoon, Escambia Rescue Chief Pat Grace was relieved of duty. County officials told the media that the county had been investigating a series of complaints involving the fire rescue department over the past several months and the investigation was still active.

In a press release, the county said the allegations brought forth were broad in scope. County Administrator Jack Brown tasked Assistant County Administrator Matt Coughlin with oversight of the investigation, which is being conducted by Sgt. Jerry Champion of Escambia Department of Corrections.

The investigation is still ongoing; three disciplinary actions have taken place to date:

· Dec. 14, 2017 – Joseph Martin, Fire Lieutenant – Letter of reprimand
· Dec. 27, 2017 – Christopher Watson, Fire Fighter – Dismissal
· Jan. 29 – Patrick Grace, Chief – Relief of duties

The press release stated, “While Chief Grace was not the focus of the investigation, it was concluded that a change in leadership, department direction and culture is needed.”

Inweekly obtained the Internal Affairs Report regarding the complaints. The name of the complainant had been redacted. The newspaper also received a 24-page journal kept by the complainant.

The female firefighter’s journal reflected incidents of workplace harassment, sexual harassment, a hostile work environment and miscellaneous policy violations. The female firefighter was hired in October 2015.

She has a degree from Auburn University, is a Registered Nurse and certified Fire EMT, worked four years in the Auburn Fire Division before moving to Pensacola.  According to the documents, Chief Grace told her father, a retired Pensacola firefighter, that his daughter was the top recruit of the prospects under consideration in the summer of 2015.

In her interview with Sgt. Champion, the firefighter said that she reported several incidents to her lieutenant that she believed “were a little over the line.” She said, “Things were not being handled. Eventually, it got to my battalion chief-I would just be moved to other stations.”

According to her journal, she was assigned to 10 fire stations in less than two years.

She said when it got so that she couldn’t handle the harassment anymore she tried to meet with Chief Grace, but he would not meet with her. What triggered the female firefighter going to county leadership was a complaint filed against her for exposing herself to the other firefighters. The complaint came after her father had met with Chief Grace and other fire leadership and was told things were going to change. After putting up with abuse and harassment for nearly two years, she felt the “bogus” complaint signaled her mistreatment would never stop.

“I came into work one morning. My lieutenant, Lt. Bush, sat me down in the front office,” she told the investigator. “And he told me that he was sorry he even had to bring this to me, but there had been a formal complaint that I had offended someone of the guys by the way I sat and that my shorts are exposing myself to the guys.”

How did she know the complaint was bogus? She said, “Because all of my shorts have sliding shorts built into them.”

She was so upset that she took sick leave. “At the time when I told my officer I was going home on sick leave, he just kept apologizing ‘I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry, I really thought they would leave you alone out here.’”

She added, “I knew that was bogus, and I then decided to take it further and made an appointment with the County Administrator (Jack Brown) to let them know what was going on, and they put me on administrative leave and started the investigation.”

Harassed from Day One
On Oct. 24, 2015, her first day of work, the firefighter wrote in her journal that her lieutenant told her, “None of the battalion chiefs want you. Chief Hollingsworth got stuck with you because he’s the newest battalion chief. You were sent to Station 19, so no one has to deal with you or train you.”

While at Station 19, she alleged that a firefighter used “bitch” as a nickname when he referred to her. He later gave her a City of Pensacola job application and told her to go work there. She wrote another application was also placed on her bed at Station 12 when she was out on a call.

She wrote about the station conditions: “On too many occasions to count, I’d find toilets not flushed with feces and/or urine on the floor where it was obvious it was an intentional mess. The female bathroom was normally designated the lieutenant’s bathroom.”

The firefighter’s problems with Firefighter Christopher Watson, who was dismissed in December, began while she was on her initial six-month probation. Watson, who is vice president of the union, made a motion at a union meeting to change the service required to test for lieutenant from two years with Escambia County and three years with another career fire department to five years with Escambia. She alleged that Watson said he specifically did so that she could not test for higher rank in two years.

She told the investigator about Watson, “He was singling me out, and he had strong opinions from day one about how I-how females should not be in the fire service, in the military…”

In her journal, she wrote how during HAZMAT training Watson grabbed a male firefighter and asked him, “You want to play the rape game?” while staring her down. She walked away and got into the ambulance.

Adding to the harassment complaint was a battery incident against Watson while he was off-duty in August 2016. The incident report was given to Inweekly. Watson broke the jaw of Lt. Joseph Martin in a fight at the Tin Cow in Pace.

In his findings, Sgt. Champion determined Watson had violated county policies regarding verbal, physical and sexual harassment.

He wrote, “The preponderance of evidence reflected a pattern of harassment and abusive behavior. The severity of the harassment/behavior is beyond the level of a “First Offense”; being conduct that is a very serious infraction and prohibited by law.”

Firefighter Watson responded to the allegations in a letter to the County Administrator.

He wrote, “I have never knowingly created an atmosphere in which to discriminate against anyone based on their gender or sex…There have been times that I have expressed an opinion that no person, male or female, be allowed to perform this job if they are not physically capable of performing at the highest tier. If that was construed to be taken as an affront to any female employees, then I am sincerely apologetic.”

He apologized for the “Rape Game” comment.

“I admittedly made an inappropriate comment to a fellow co-worker,” he said. “This comment in no way shape or form was intended to intimidate or harass any individual, nor do I believe it represents my beliefs or character.”

Watson concluded in his letter, “I take all the accusations very seriously and just want the opportunity to show Escambia County that I can and will be better in the future.”

The female firefighter has since moved away. She wrote in her journal why she wanted to be an Escambia firefighter.

“I love my job because I get to help people…But this is not the fire service that I signed up for,” she wrote. “I’ve worked for a fire department before, and it was not anything like this. I was never given a chance to succeed here.”