Tim Steller: Misbehavior at firehouses needs to stop

2013-05-26T00:00:00Z 2013-05-28T12:15:11Z Tim Steller: Misbehavior at firehouses needs to stopTim Steller Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
May 26, 2013 12:00 am  • 

Children learn quickly that it isn't a valid excuse for misbehavior to say "Everybody was doing it."

But apparently that excuse works for some city of Tucson employees - costing us city taxpayers in the end.

Roger Sloan Tamietti, a Tucson Fire Department captain, had his rank restored by the city's civil service commission Monday, largely by offering an "everybody does it" defense.

He was accused of throwing an underling onto a couch at Station 7, 4902 E. Pima Road, holding him there and thrusting his crotch into him. Tamietti admitted briefly wrestling former paramedic Cody Jenkins onto the couch but denied the rest.

At Tamietti's two-day hearing, a series of firefighter witnesses told the commission that "horseplay" is common at Tucson fire stations. His attorney, Mike Storie, said Tamietti shouldn't have been demoted from captain back to paramedic by Fire Chief Jim Critchley.

The fact that this gambit worked, and Tamietti got his captain's rank back with just a 15-day suspension should worry Tucson taxpayers and make us demand grown-up behavior from all Tucson firefighters. Whatever Tamietti did, soon after the incident Jenkins sued, and the city has just agreed to pay a settlement of $125,000.

The issue isn't lost on Critchley, whom I spoke with Friday morning at his office at the downtown headquarters, along with Assistant Chief Joe Gulotta. They said the generations-old traditions of hazing and horseplay have been slowly driven from the department, but that there remains a small percentage of firefighters who engage.

"The next time this happens, it'll be the same discipline," Critchley said. "If I have to be at civil service for the next year, so be it."

Critchley sounded sincere, but his words were also familiar. In fact, this was the latest in a series of incidents involving roughhousing, hazing or mistreatment of co-workers by Tucson firefighters at their stations, some of which have led to financial settlements, all of which have prompted efforts to end the misbehavior.

In 2005, the department put eight firefighters on probation for playing hazing pranks on new firefighters. At one station, new recruits were greeted by a firefighter standing in the kitchen wearing only boots and an apron, with a red heart on his buttocks; at another station, an engineer was in the kitchen wearing a novelty apron with an attached phallus.

The tricks went "beyond the bounds of good taste and department standards," Capt. Paul McDonough, a Tucson Fire Department spokesman, said at the time.

In 2006, Michelle Maliniak, then an engineer with Tucson fire, filed an equal employment opportunity complaint for what she said was gender-based mistreatment at her station. She followed that up with a lawsuit in 2007. The city won the case in November, but it took years of legal work by outside attorneys, and Maliniak is appealing.

"People need to learn boundaries," then-chief Dan Newburn said at that time.

In 2007, a new recruit named Adam Neal was beaten by co-workers at the fire house, then duct-taped to a chair and flung into a shower stall. Then they turned on the cold water. He quit and sued, and in 2008, the city paid him a settlement of $60,000.

That year, Newburn sent out a memo to the department telling them to stop the hazing.

"We must demonstrate that we embrace a contemporary workforce ethic," Newburn wrote in a memo co-authored by the president of the local firefighter union.

The union president's name was Roger Tamietti - he's the father of the man reinstated as captain last week, who's known as Sloan. Roger Tamietti remains union president and attended the civil-service hearing.

My colleague Carli Brosseau, then with the Tucson Citizen, reported the memo this way in 2008: "Newburn and Tamietti specified that spraying new recruits visiting the station with a charged hose line, dumping water onto them off the roof and physically rough housing with them are violations of the rules of the department and the city government and counter to the values of the union."

I imagine most adults read that and ask themselves the same question I do: Does this really need to be spelled out?

Apparently so. At the hearing, Storie, Sloan Tamietti's attorney - a longtime representative of the area's public-safety unions - spoke almost apologetically about the atmosphere at fire stations.

"This is not to condone that they act like a fraternity house. I get it. But they live together, they eat together. It's a culture in itself that they have to maintain," Storie said.

Brent Culbertson, a firefighter for 5 1/2 years who was a witness in the hearing testified, "Horseplay has occurred at many stations and on many shifts for the short period of time I've been on."

On Saturday, Storie told me he was disappointed the city folded by settling with Jenkins, who didn't even show up at the hearing where they were considering his complaint. Firefighters testified that Jenkins himself was a frequent participant in horseplay.

But the firefighters must recognize that, even if their roughhousing isn't sexual or ill-intentioned, these days it opens the city up to liability.

Critchley says the department has been making progress at reducing horseplay. Mayor Jonathan Rothschild told me he and the council are behind him.

"That kind of culture cannot continue in his department," the mayor said. "The chief has made it a priority. They've started trainings, but at some point you've got to put teeth into them."

You would think it wouldn't take putting teeth into a bunch of grown men (the female firefighters are curiously never named as horseplay participants). You would think that the dead-enders in the department would realize after all these years that there are boundaries they should not cross.

But if they won't face it, we citizens should demand it. Their frat-house shenanigans are costing us money.

Contact columnist Tim Steller at tsteller@azstarnet.com or 807-8427. On Twitter: @senyorreporter

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