Pensacola, Florida
Tuesday August 14th 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.”

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