A veteran city firefighter's refusal to respond to the Jan. 8 shooting spree, citing "political bantering," may have slowed his Tucson Fire Department unit's response to the incident that left six dead and 13 wounded, city memos show.
The firefighter, Mark Ekstrum, retired from his 28-year career two days later, while his supervisors were still considering how to discipline him, internal memos obtained by the Arizona Daily Star in a public-records request show.
In a Jan. 9 report on Ekstrum's actions, fire Capt. Ben Williams wrote that when Ekstrum first told him he would not go out on the call, "he mentioned something about 'political bantering' and he did not want to be part of it." He said he was acting "for the good of the crew."
Williams said he told Ekstrum he could not refuse a call for that reason, and then talked to the firefighter privately in his office. He said Ekstrum "started to say something about how he had a much different political viewpoint than the rest of the crew and he was concerned." Despite being told that was not acceptable, Williams said Ekstrum informed him he was going home "sick," so they answered the call without him.
In a statement provided to the Fire Department late Wednesday, after he was contacted by the Star about the incident, Ekstrum said he was distraught over the shootings and had no problem with U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who is recovering from a bullet wound to the brain, and even voted for her in the last election.
Ekstrum was on duty at a station on the far southeast side and was part of a team specially trained to handle large medical emergencies. While the crew was not among those called first to the shooting scene - they were not dispatched until about 90 minutes after the shootings - a memo from Ekstrum's supervisor said his actions caused "confusion and delay" in the emergency circumstances. The department previously sent several paramedic units to the Safeway at North Oracle Road and West Ina Road.
The Fire Department later backtracked from that statement, saying Ekstrum's actions caused delay during the preparatory process, but did not cause a delay of the actual call.
However, one of the fire engines had to stop at another fire station to pick up personnel to take Ekstrum's place.
Crews at Tucson Fire's Station 6,10251 S. Wilmot Road, were dispatched at 12:03 p.m. Jan. 8, seven minutes after the last patient arrived at the hospital, said Joe Gulotta, an assistant fire chief. They responded as a support crew, in a non-emergency way with the Metropolitan Medical Response System (MMRS), a large delivery truck with tents, medical supplies, water and cots, used after the shootings to assist those who were not seriously injured.
Williams said he told Ekstrum they all have differences, but they put those differences aside and respond as professionals, the memo said. However, Ekstrum said "I'm leaving, I am going home," the memo said, and Williams said at that time he realized arguing was pointless and time was wasting so he told Ekstrum to go.
After the crew returned from the call, Ekstrum was waiting at the station with his wife and asked if he could come in to apologize to the crew, the memo said. The crew accepted his apology, and then Williams talked in his office with Ekstrum and his wife.
"He stated that there were underlying issues regarding the call that brought up a lot of anger and made him ineffective as a firefighter," the memo said. "I told him that as his captain I had lost confidence in his future ability to perform his duties. He stated that he felt this call was unique and did not think this would happen again."
When contacted at his house Wednesday, and later by telephone, Ekstrum declined to comment.
However, in the statement he submitted to the department late Wednesday - a statement the department was not expecting - he said he was distraught over the shootings and was "distracted to the point of not being able to perform my routine station duties to such an extent that I seriously doubted my ability to focus on an emergency call."
He said he failed to effectively communicate that was the reason he needed to go home and "my communication centered more on how this event would affect the country and them and us, and, of course, led to their misunderstanding about my need to go home because I was at a point of distraction."
Ekstrum said he realized the next day, "I had crossed a line with myself in relation to our citizens. I should have been there, regardless of how responsible I was attempting to be from the standpoint of distraction."
Ekstrum said he decided to retire right then, without knowing that the Tucson Fire Department was starting a disciplinary action against him.
He said in his statement that he voted for Giffords in the last election, and spoke with her early on in her tenure about a communication vehicle that TFD had for mass-casualty incidents. "She asked many pertinent and intelligent questions," Ekstrum said. "She has always impressed me as a person that was willing to listen."
Ekstrum has been registered as an independent since 1999, Pima County Recorder's Office records show, after being registered as a Democrat for the previous 17 years. He did not appear to be very politically active. The records show he hadn't voted in a primary election in 28 years and his name couldn't be found in campaign finance records as a donor.
Williams recommended a 20-day suspension, the maximum sanction for a first time offense. In his memo, he said, "I look forward to getting past this incident so that we may work together again in the future."
However, Gulotta initially said Ekstrum's behavior fit the "most egregious category in our discipline matrix," and he likely would have faced termination if he had not retired.
But later, after seeing Ekstrum's Wednesday statement, Gulotta said the department's reaction to Ekstrum's actions would have been different. It would have first sent him to a city doctor to measure his fitness for duty and then could have simply disciplined him, or potentially fired him, but Gulotta said exactly what would have happened is unknown.
Fire Union President Roger Tamietti declined to comment on Ekstrum because Ekstrum was not a member of the fire union.
In his 28 years with Tucson Fire, Ekstrum had positive reviews and was given "exceed standards" on most of his evaluations. Williams said in his memo that Ekstrum's work ethic and performance had been exemplary and professional.
In early 2010, Ekstrum used two weeks' vacation time to volunteer in Haiti and help the victims of the earthquake, according to his personnel file.
He was only reprimanded once, an oral reprimand in 1984 for backing his vehicle into an object, Gulotta said.
City Manager Mike Letcher said the department took the appropriate action over the Jan. 8 incident, but he is concerned his office didn't know about it until this week.
On StarNet: Read more about the shooting and its aftermath at azstarnet.com/giffords
Contact reporter Fernanda Echavarri at firstname.lastname@example.org or 573-4224. Contact reporter Rob O'Dell at email@example.com or 573-4346.