Firestorm

As a lawsuit exposes the political underbelly of the Knoxville Fire Department, it also raises questions on just how well it's run.

Mayor Victor Ashe is annexing. Targeted Knox Countians are receiving letters advertising superior police protection, street paving, and street lights. But these seductions pale compared to the department he invariably calls "the finest in the state, the Southeast, and one of the best in the nation"

The letters tout:

"A fire department that staffs all its 19 fire stations 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. We have an average response time of four minutes with at least two engines staffed by three persons each. You can cancel any Rural Metro subscription.

"Vastly improved fire protection that carries a class three fire insurance rating which often translates into lower insurance rates from the classes which exists (sic) outside the city. You should check with your insurance carrier for a possible reduction.

"A First Responder program operated 24 hours a day for medical emergencies which responds in an average of four minutes."

There are heroes in the Knoxville Fire Department, like the firefighters at Station 3 (see sidebar). They rescue us from burning buildings, pull us out of flaming cars, and, as First Responders, are the first faces we see when we have medical emergencies in the night. But there are among the firefighters growing accusations of coercion and retaliation, charges of promotions given or denied on the basis of political favoritism rather than merit, reports of nose-diving morale and rising mistrust among co-workers who must depend upon one another for their very lives.

Have politics really affected the performance of the Knoxville Fire Department? Is KFD indeed the premier fire service in the state? The Memphis Fire Department has a policy of admitting mistakes and learning from them. How does the Knoxville Fire Department behave when it screws up? The Nashville Fire Department is moving toward more professional management and less political influence. Who gets the top jobs here, and why?

Victor Ashe became Mayor January 1, 1988, and promptly started fulfilling an important campaign promise to hire new firefighters. At the same time, he presided over the streamlining of the department from a force of 463 to 359, with minorities and women among the new hires. But other promises went unfulfilled, such as raising firefighter pay to parity with the other large Tennessee cities and shaking up the culture of the department's good ol' boy management.

Peas and Carrots

The first job of firefighters is to protect life and property; but the working hours--three 24-hour shifts every other day, then four days off--leave free time to work as carpenters, electricians, salesmen, writers, students, used car dealers. And to dabble in politics.

Politics and firemen go together, as Forrest Gump would say, like peas and carrots. Breakfast at the firehall is high on the "To Do" lists of political candidates from Burlington to Norwood. Political-and-proud-of-it Assistant Chief Kenneth "Red" Lowe has enjoyed a meteoric rise in rank in recent years, and has been spotted constructing Ashe signs on duty.

"A firefighter'd sacrifice his granny for a captain's job," says one veteran of 20-plus years. "It's always been political, especially for the top jobs. But it's never been this vindictive. The politics are spilling over into the day-by-day operations of the department."

Chief Bruce Cureton, via written response, says "Concerning the question of a fireman sacrificing a relative for a promotion, I have no knowledge of that ever occurring... Since Civil Service testing was adopted in 1983, no one can be considered for a promotion unless the proper tests are taken. I am not aware of politics being involved in the day-to-day departmental operations."

This issue will be tested by a civil rights lawsuit filed in US District Court. It charges Ashe, Chief Bruce Cureton and Deputy Chief Bob Pressley with punishing firefighters for exercising their constitutional right to support Ashe opponent Ivan Harmon during the 1995 mayoral election. Ashe has admitted transferring two of the firefighters--Assistant Chief Frank Potter and Master Firefighter Kenneth Scar-brough--because of their political activities. When the suit goes to trial, citizens may get a rare glimpse of the underbelly of city politics.

Nonetheless, Bill Warwick, president of the Knoxville Firefighters Association who holds the rank of Master Firefighter and says he doesn't have a granny to sacrifice, maintains that KFD is tops. He cites fast response times and dedicated firefighters.

"We are one of the best fire departments in the Southeast, and I'm proud as punch of them."

Scott Wright, owner of B&R Tire Company, a Western Avenue business destroyed by fire last summer, thinks otherwise:

"I think he [Ashe] is full of it...City fire protection? What's so great about it? They could have saved half our building...Here we sit. We lost a half million dollars; they keep on bragging."

Cureton, however, maintains that "all that could have been saved, was saved. We do not permit anyone to enter a structure until it is deemed safe..."

The Grace of God and a Shift in the Wind

The B&R fire started last July 2 when a piece of equipment malfunctioned, caught fire and had the shop area in flames. The fire department arrived promptly and appeared to have the situation well in hand when, suddenly, witnesses say, the firefighters pulled back. The fire flared up again and the business was destroyed.

"The back building [a tire warehouse, separated from the office by a 30-foot wide driveway] wasn't even on fire..." says Wright. He says his father, Bob Wright, and the service manager, Bill Trent, "...asked them to spray some water on the back building; they didn't respond. The fire jumped over to that back building, got into the trees, and threatened the shopping center...Then they started fighting fire again."

Wright's wife, Beth, says when she and her mother-in-law tried to drive onto the property, "They had the road blocked off and told us we couldn't walk through there. They were waiting for airplanes... There was a man in a uniform ... sitting in a lawnchair at the barricade. He said it'd be too dangerous for us to go up there; they were gonna drop foam."

The operation was managed by Cureton, assisted by Deputy Chief Gene Hamlin, whom the 911 tape shows was indeed scanning the horizon for helicopters. A call had come into the 911 center from someone identifying himself as Col. Forrester of the Air National Guard, who said he'd been flying around, seen the fire and could send four helicopters to douse the flames with foam. Hamlin accepted; Cureton called Emergency Management head Joe McNally. For the next half hour, McNally tried to contact Forrester and Cureton fretted while Hamlin alerted firefighters to watch for foam-bearing aircraft:

"Car 80 to all personnel on the scene of this tire fire: Be aware that helicopters are gonna be coming in a few minutes to drop foam, and we're gonna be notifying you to stand clear, so pass the word around."

Cureton to McNally: "...we're pretty close to having this thing...but using foam could cut down on smoke pollution."

McNally made multiple attempts to call Forrester's cellular phone number and got nothing but a recording. Finally, he called the base for the elusive Col. Forrester and asked the first soldier with whom he spoke "...Do you have any aircraft with foam capability near our area?..."

The soldier laughed. "No sir. We're a helicopter unit."

Finally, McNally reached CW5 Rick Scrugham, a pilot instructor/safety officer with the Army National Guard's helicopter unit: "...We've already moved firefighters back because he said he had four...equipped helicopters with firefighting foam..."

Scrugham said he's unfamiliar with foam-equipped helicopters. Finally, he relayed a message back from Forrester:

"He said he might have a little foam, but it was certainly attached to no helicopter."

Back at the fire, an inspector showed up on the scene looking for code violations and cited Bob Wright to court.

Cureton says firefighters "were told to be prepared for the arrival of these units, but no one was 'pulled off' the scene or told to stop firefighting efforts."

A firefighter who was on the scene reacts angrily to Cureton's remark:

"He's full of shit. I was there, and they lost it...All of a sudden, they said for everybody to pull back..."

Cureton also points out that the Wrights were cited with five code violations for having a "huge volume of illegally-stored tires..." and maintains that "the assistance of the Guard was not considered in our firefighting efforts and wouldn't have been until their arrival."

He fails to mention that all charges were dismissed in City Court July 24.

A firehall joke about the B&R blaze corroborates Wright's account:

"But for the grace of God and a shift in the wind, we'd have lost Winn-Dixie."

The prank call came in on a line that 911 officials say was not being recorded. The caller has not been identified.

The tires continued to flare up for two weeks.

Scrugham, interviewed this month, says his unit helped fight forest fires in LaFollette a few years back, but with water, not foam, and that he has never seen foam-equipped helicopters.

B&R has relocated near Lovell Road. Scott Wright is still angry: "They tried to hide what happened. They denied it. When something like this happens, it should be investigated. It's been devastating. We're trying to keep people employed, keep food on people's tables. It's just not right for them to blow us off this way...They just pulled off and quit fighting. They just stood by and let it burn."

Asked if anyone has ever offered to drop foam on a fire in Knox County, County Fire Marshal Wayne Waggoner reluctantly says: "Never."

And if it ever happened?

"I'd say, 'Have it here before we make a decision.'"

Measuring Fire Service

The standard measure of fire services is the Insurance Services Office (ISO) fire insurance rating, which takes into account proximity of firehalls to homes and businesses, training, equipment, personnel, and such infrastructure factors as size of water mains. For years, Knoxville's fire department has been ranked a respectable Class 3. Rural Metro's ranking ranges from Class 6 in West Knox to Class 9 in other areas, depending on the water supply. This means higher fire insurance rates outside the city.

Comparing the Knoxville Fire Department to a privately-owned fire service with far-flung rural populations in its territory is difficult. City fire departments carry higher ISO ratings, so it is instructive to measure KFD by a yardstick of its own device:

In April 1987, a Blue Ribbon Task Force commissioned the year before to study the fire department issued a draft report saying KFD could raise its ISO rating to Class 2 by making some changes. There had been no new hires for 10 years. There were too many fire stations, too much outdated equipment.

Ashe recognized the discontent in the fire department and campaigned hard in the firehalls, promising to increase pay levels to parity with Nashville, Memphis and Chattanooga. When he took over in January 1988, he moved to hire firefighters and consolidate firehalls. But the task force had found other, less publicized problems: weak management and leadership, promotions not always based on merit, lack of training, inadequate attention to equipment maintenance and replacement, poor use of firefighters' time, poor morale.

Recommendations included:

Developing a career development program tying pay "to a rigorous system of skills testing and performance evaluation."

Most of some two dozen firefighters interviewed for this story say there is no career development program, "just a way supporters of Victor Ashe can be promoted without having to spend time in grade," as one firefighter puts it. "Pass the test and kiss ass," is how another sums up the promotion process.

These firefighters' comments do not deserve response, in Cureton's view, and he points to the Civil Service Merit Board's classification specifications setting out criteria for promotion.

An analysis of fire department salary increases during the 10 years of the Ashe administration show salary hikes ranging from a low of 30 percent to a high of 122.20 percent. The low end, Cureton says, is occupied by those who refuse to take the Civil Service tests.

Those receiving the highest increases over the past 10 years are Deputy Chief Robert P. Pressley (122.20 percent), Chief-designee Gene Hamlin (108.11 percent) and Assistant Chief Kenneth "Red" Lowe (107.34 percent).

Increasing training.

Medical training has been increased, although critics contend time spent in actual firefighting training has decreased. Cureton says this is not true and that training has increased across the board in all aspects of firefighting during the last decade.

Nashville's trainees experience 24 to 32 hours of "live burn" training; Memphis trainees get 16 to 24 hours "smokehouse" training, plus the opportunity to put out a fire in a condemned house. Cureton did not specifically respond to a question regarding the amount of time spent in actual fire suppression training in Knoxville.

Replacing and upgrading equipment.

Much new equipment has been purchased. Virtually all of it comes from the same company, Emergency-One of Ocala, Florida. Danny Sutphen, owner of the Sutphen Corporation, which won the bid for the last big purchase of fire trucks--five pumpers and two aerials--before Cureton became chief, says he no longer bothers to bid in Knoxville, because he "can't write bids to somebody else's specifications..."

Cureton says E-One has been the low bidder, and that bids are handled through the city Purchasing Department.

Bid specifications, however, are written by Cureton and safety officer Paul Dunn.

Reducing the number of chiefs and layers of supervision.

Few changes have been made here with the notable exception of effectively eliminating the job of the most highly-trained deputy chief--Patrick Cummins--after he opposed Ashe's re-election in 1995. Cummins, who chose to retire after he was "busted" in rank from deputy chief to captain in 1996, is certified as an executive fire officer by the National Firefighting Academy; as a state fire fighter I and II; state journeyman firefighter; state fire instructor; state fire officer I, II, and III.

By way of contrast, neither Chief-designee Hamlin nor incumbent chief Bruce Cureton have passed the state Firefighting Commission's Fire Officer I certification (which KFD has not chosen to require for promotion, but is required by other fire services. Rural Metro, for example, requires Fire Officer I certification for promotion to captain or above.)

Cureton says Cummins' position was not eliminated. He also says that he was chief for 10 years before the test was created, and the test is not required by the department. This would hold true for Hamlin. Metro Pulse requested a list of Hamlin's qualifications and was given the following assurance from Cureton:

"I can say with sincerity that (Hamlin) does possess the knowledge, skills and abilities necessary to serve as the next Fire Chief of the KFD, based upon his 34-year work experience..."

Adopting and enforcing physical fitness standards.

Firefighters say this is not enforced consistently, and point to a fair number of obese employees, usually in the higher ranks. Cureton says these standards are enforced and (even the fattest firefighter) "is currently in compliance with the department's physical fitness requirements."

The Best in the State?

Since Ashe has invited comparisons with other fire departments in the state, Southeast, and nation, is the Knoxville Fire Department, indeed, one of the finest anywhere?

Nashville and Memphis are generally acknowledged to be the class of Tennessee's municipal fire services. Memphis has the state's highest ISO rating--Class 1--and achieved that status without benefit of something that is ubiquitous here--a public relations department.

"Money's so tight and there's so much to do that we just share the job," says Chief Raymond Chiozza. "When there is a need at a particular fire scene, the incident commander will appoint a public information officer to handle the media."

He says they have more important things to spend money on, like a state-of-the art $25 million digital radio system, a light water task force for flammable liquid and chemical fires, a snorkel unit for high-rise fires, and a soon-to-be implemented promotion process with assessment centers administering a rigorous set of tests and exercises--all things KFD lacks.

"We are a Class I fire department. Our group rating is a Group 2," says Chiozza, and we have the lowest insurance rates a fire department can achieve."

Cureton, who, when he announced his retirement on March 3, said KFD is "the best fire department in Tennessee, and probably one of the best in the nation..." now says it isn't fair to compare Knoxville with the much-larger city of Memphis. He says insurance rates are "essentially the same" for Class 1-3 departments.

Chiozza doesn't claim that the Memphis Fire Department is devoid of politics--Director Charles E. Smith is a political appointee who serves at the will of the mayor. Smith, however, earned national admiration when he reacted to a 1994 high-rise fire that took the lives of two firefighters and two civilians by commissioning a board of inquiry and inviting in an investigative team from American Heat, a video production company affiliated with the University of Cincinnati's Fire Science Department.

The findings of the inquiry prompted major policy changes. The department admitted mistakes and took steps to correct them; American Heat produced a nationally-distributed documentary on what went wrong; a striking contrast to the B&R aftermath.

The Nashville Music City Fire Department is led by civilian Chief Norman "Buck" Dozier, a private sector businessman who first was appointed to Mayor Phil Bredesen's cabinet, then to the fire department position. Although Dozier, like Smith of Memphis, is a political appointee, Bredesen (unlike patronage-inclined predecessor Bill Boner) decreed that the city should be run more professionally.

"It was real bad," says Nashville public information officer George Russell of the Boner-controlled fire department's favor machine. He says Bredesen, however, "...frowns on that situation. He doesn't play favorites. If a job is open, whoever scores highest is first on the list, and the chief has option to promote within the first 10 on list...that way it gives him some leeway...This Mayor has really taken politics out of the system..."

As for Ashe's claims for Knoxville, Russell says, "A lot of fire departments like to do that--compare. We like to compare ourselves to the very best in the nation--the Phoenix Fire Department. And we'll put our firefighters up with some of the best."

"Nashville stands hands and heads above Knoxville and Memphis, too," says Knox County Fire Marshal Wayne Waggoner. "They've got a business man running the fire department, and he's a good manager. So far, I've not found a chief over there that dislikes him..."

For the Good of the Department

A firefighter/former Ashe supporter remembers election night 1987, when perhaps 100 firefighters waited out the returns at a poll-closing gathering at the Tennessee Theater. Ashe won a narrow victory over opponent Randy Tyree, and the group ended up at a victory celebration at Manhattan's.

"Everybody was buying rounds for everybody else, and Victor kept thanking us all for our help...A street sweeper came down Central, and (Victor) went out and climbed up on it and shook the man's hand and said, 'Let's work together'...We thought this guy really understood what needed to be done...We were ready for a change. And the first change was a new chief."

Eight years later, Cureton was still chief, the firefighters still hadn't seen their salaries rise to the promised level, Ashe was seeking a third term, and the mood had changed. At the July 24, 1995 meeting of the Knoxville Firefighters Association, union members had an ugly confrontation when supporters of Ashe opponent Ivan Harmon, although a minority, refused to sit quietly.

After the meeting, Deputy Chief Bob Pressley copied the sign-up sheet with the names of 91 union members. To the right of each signature, he wrote either an "I" or a "V," showing whom that individual supported. To the left of the Harmon supporters' signatures is a notation of the shift to which they were assigned.

The sign-up sheet, now marked "Exhibit 48," is filed in US District Court as part of the lawsuit against Ashe, Cureton and Pressley filed by Master Firefighter Gary Sharpe, Master Firefighter Kenneth Scarbrough, Assistant Chief Frank Potter, and Deputy Chief Bill Potter--all Harmon supporters; and Assistant Chief William "Red" McGinnis, who had attempted to stay apolitical.

These firefighters got calls from Pressley on or around election day informing them that their assignments were being changed; for example:

* Bill Potter's job was eliminated, landing him in another position (occupied at the time by Patrick Cummins, who was in turn reduced in rank to captain) requiring longer hours for the same pay. Potter's new office was a converted broom closet

* Gary Sharpe made the sixth-highest score among 39 applicants testing for fire officer in 1995; 25 were promoted--Sharpe was not. He was also denied a merit raise or bonus. The others were transferred or denied promotions and/or raises or bonuses.

In their depositions, the plaintiffs said Pressley told them the moves were "for the good of the department."

Many firefighters say the trial, which is scheduled next month, could also highlight the political doings of Deputy Chief Gene Hamlin, who will succeed Bruce Cureton as chief. Hamlin, numerous sources say, drove sheriff candidate Rudy Bradley around to firehalls in his city-owned car during the 1994 elections, ran a firehall-based sign crew for Ashe in 1995 and presided over the carpentry crew that remodeled Ashe's Kingston Pike home.

Although Pressley picked the winning side, his work was not without peril. He told plaintiffs' attorney Wanda Sobieski, in deposition, that he was verbally abused when he made the election-night calls notifying the men of their transfers, describing a "highly irate" Assistant Chief "Red" McGinnis, who said "...that I was a no-good chickenshit son of a bitch."

The Highest Tradition of the Knoxville Fire Department

Excerpts from a letter filed in the Knoxville Firefighters' Association office from Assistant Chief Lowe to the Insurers of Knoxville Awards Committee:

"In regard to the house fire at 5003 Tillman Road April 19, 1997, at 1:40 in the morning...Firefighter Scott Calloway came off the truck in full turn-out gear ready to advance the attack line into the burning structure...there was (sic) three victims trapped inside. As he attacked the fire head-on, Calloway found the first victim in the bedroom. Master Firefighter Gary Kaiser had entered the dwelling and was there to assist in the rescue...Calloway found the second victim.

Fire Officer Pat Donnell and Firefighter Rick Buhl had entered the house and...carried the second patient to the front lawn where the EMS system was in full function...While other members of Ladder 15 were trying to contain the fire...Calloway found a third victim.... fighting fire as he was carrying her to the front...

"Scott Calloway acted in the highest tradition of the Knoxville Fire Department and deserves to be awarded the highest honor of Firefighter of the Year. Engine Companies 14, 15, Ladder 15, and Squad 7 should receive the award jointly... recognition from the awards committee and from Mayor Victor Ashe is just a way of telling these brave firefighters [that they are appreciated]...I hope you will look favorable on this recommendation as it is only just."

The 1997 KFD Firefighter of the Year is retiring Chief Bruce Cureton.

© 1997 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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