Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Firefighter accused of neglect

Allegedly too busy with tryst to do job

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WINNIPEG – A Winnipeg firefighter is accused of having a sexual tryst in a shed at the Osborne Street fire hall while on duty -- leaving the station unable to respond to an emergency call.

The Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service has launched an internal investigation into the incident, which occurred last month.

Findings of that investigation could be returned as early as today.

Ken Sim, the deputy chief of operations for the WFPS, confirmed Thursday the allegations of wrongdoing involving the firefighter and a female visitor to the station appear to have "merit" and are being treated seriously by the department.

"If someone has put themselves off-site or in a compromising situation, there could be consequences," said Sim. "There are all kinds of expectation around this kind of thing, and the crews have to be at the ready to respond at all times."

The alleged incident occurred on July 17 but wasn't immediately reported to officials.

"It's surprising it took so long to come forward," said Sim, who couldn't offer any further explanation for the delay. The firefighter in question was accused by at least one colleague of not being in the fire station at the time a call for service came in. He was reportedly found in an equipment shed behind the building with a woman. The crew allegedly had to put themselves out of service and get another to respond.

But Sim said an initial review of all calls for service from the night in question shows nothing was missed by the crew in question. But he says the investigation into that aspect of the allegation remains ongoing.

Sim said a platoon chief was recently tasked with leading the probe and interviewing the firefighter and his seven colleagues who were on duty that night. There are also two paramedics who would have been working out of the station at the time.

"He is in the midst of the investigation and some of the challenges have been the fact some people are on vacation. We're expecting his report to come in in the next few days," said Sim. "This type of thing is relatively rare. It's pointing to one specific individual. It would be just astounding if it involved any more of the crew."

The firefighter in question has been transferred to another station while the matter is investigated, Sim said.

Alex Forrest, president of the United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg, was on holidays Thursday and couldn't be reached for comment.

Sim said potential discipline could include forced time off, a letter on his permanent record and "remedial education."

"That place is a big frat house," a Winnipeg paramedic told the Free Press this week.

The Osborne Street fire hall is no stranger to controversy. It made headlines in 2004 after firefighters were accused of improper behaviour with several young female visitors. Three firefighters were demoted, but two later regained their positions with back pay after the case went to a provincial labour hearing.

Other specific details of the agreement between the firefighters' union and the management were never released publicly.

The United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg accused the department of unfairly investigating the incident and then punishing firefighters too harshly. The trio was disciplined after the department learned that four young women leaving a bar made a late-night visit to the Osborne hall. Against department rules, the women were driven home in a fire truck.

Andy Burgess, the assistant chief who led the investigation into the allegations, told the public his review led to new reports from paramedics and firefighters of troubling deeds in the fire hall.

Firefighters routinely sat outside the fire hall commenting on women as they drove or walked by, he testified. Women frequently visited the station late at night. Some Winnipeg Blue Bomber cheerleaders may have also paid the fire hall a late-night visit, Burgess said, though that report was never corroborated.

Reports of compromising photographs taken after a Canada Day street party also surfaced during Burgess's investigation. One photo allegedly showed women being fondled while sitting on the laps of uniformed firefighters. Another reportedly showed women standing on the bumper of a fire truck with their pants down. Burgess said he was told the photos were destroyed before he could verify they existed.

Burgess testified that one of the demoted firefighters was previously disciplined after paramedics found a computer disk containing downloaded porn, mostly text.

As part of the settlement, the union and the department also agreed on four guidelines. Captains on duty will be in charge of letting the public into the station, following the rules of the department: Citizens aren't allowed to ride in ambulances; the captain is responsible and accountable for the conduct of firefighters under his command; and both the union and the department are "committed to maintaining a respectful workplace" and will follow the city's respectful workplace policy.

Last fall, two Winnipeg paramedics were arrested and charged with trying to solicit sex from two young women while on duty in the West End. Both were suspended from work without pay. Charges have since been stayed against one employee, while the other remains before the courts.

www.mikeoncrime.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 21, 2009 A3

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