Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Houston? You Have A Problem!

There is a saying that goes something like this: “Ten ‘atta-boys’ can be quickly erased by one bad act”.

Such is the case with the Houston Fire Department. The men and women of this fire department get up every day and perform their duty for the citizens of Houston. A storied fire department, Houston FD has seen some of the largest fires in this country’s fire service history.

And yet; what has been capturing their public’s attention since July 7, 2009, are the allegations of racism and sexual harassment lodged against the department by female firefighters Paula Keyes and Jane Draycott.

I have spent several hours reading over the articles that I could find on the internet related to these allegations and the city’s and the fire department’s reactions to them. Also included are reactions from attorneys and the various firefighter associations that represent Houston firefighters.

The allegations are serious. The accusations that various inappropriate acts were ignored are a cause for concern, but what I found most disturbing were the comments left by readers on the many websites where articles of these accusations appeared. I found some of them to be racist, sexist and borderline psychotic. Some were posted by people who claimed to be current or past Houston firefighters, but as we all know, you can be anything that you want to be on the internet.

Following is a chronology of the events that I put together with the assistance of the information that I was able to find. My source credits will appear at the end of my article.

My comments will appear in bold type.

Tuesday, 7/7/09 – According to the article; racist, sexist graffiti was found on a locker at Station 54 at George Bush Intercontinental Airport. The fire department declined to provide details and the women were offered the services of the department psychologist to deal with it.

At the very least, this is willful damage to public property and worst case could be a hate crime.

Wednesday, 7/8/09 – Graffiti was found on the door to the female quarters at Station 54. Meanwhile, the City Council votes to spend $60,000 for sensitivity training after a “noose-like knot” was found in a veteran captain’s locker. The veteran captain said that it was a fisherman’s knot and he kept it to honor the firefighter who taught him how to tie it.
The Black Firefighters’ Association weighs in.

$60,000 could pay the one year salary of a firefighter. That’s a lot of money for “knot training”.

Thursday, 7/9/09 – Early Wednesday morning, the “N-word” was transmitted over a secure tactical radio frequency in a message that lasted eight seconds.
Allegations of previous harassments that went ignored appears.
11 News reported allegations of women being “groped” by male co-workers and in other incident, a male firefighter masturbated over a female co-worker while she tried to sleep.
Paula Keyes and Jane Draycott are introduced Wednesday evening on 7/8/09 at a press conference as the two firefighters from Station 54. Draycott stated that she had filed two complaints since April 1, 2009.

It should be mentioned that most of the focus was finding out how the radio system was hacked into and who did it. It was reported that it came from someone “outside of the department”.

Friday, 7/10/09 – Mayor Bill White rankles the Houston Professional Firefighters Association with his comments. Mayor White recommended hiring an outside consulting firm to review Houston Fire Department’s operation. He also recommended modifying two civil service rules; rules meant to assure due process for firefighters suspected of wrong-doing (slows the process according to the Mayor) and rules requiring promotions based largely on test scores (makes it difficult to put best leaders in place, according to the Mayor).
Mayor White promotes the Houston Fire Department as a “diverse” fire department, even though a survey shows that 97% of the 4,000-plus firefighters are men and 61% of them are white.
The union responded that changes in the rules would undermine the agreed upon contract.

Why would you recommend spending money with a consulting firm to tell you what you already know? And unless that firm is well-versed in the cultural issues of the fire service, they will find that many corporate strategies will be ineffective.

Houston KTRK reported that Keyes and Draycott have more than eight years with the department. Their attorney claims that previous, unresolved incidents led to his clients going public with incidents that included having the cold water shut off to the shower so they were scalded with hot water, having firecrackers go off when they opened the restroom stall doors and having their mattresses removed from their beds.

It would almost sound like “hazing” incidents wouldn’t it, if not for the fact that both firefighters were well past their probationary time with the department.

Allegations were made that Houston FD’s Chief Boriske’s inaction with other claims led to recent problems. The Houston Black Firefighters’ Association called for strong leadership that they claimed the department was not getting.
The Houston Professional Firefighters’ Association believed that Chief Boriske was being unfairly targeted.
Houston city councilwoman Jolanda Jones was calling for a Justice Department investigation.

Sunday, 7/19/09 – The Houston Chronicle reported that Station 54’s captain’s log revealed “chaos in the making”.
More incidents were reported including: urine splattered in the women’s restroom and personal lockers ransacked, because the women did not have the keys to lock them.
Daily captain’s log showed at least six entries since April 1, 2009 that showed Keyes and Draycott were being harassed by co-workers.
The May 12, 2009 entry involved urine left on the bowls of the women’s toilet.
Station 54 had a policy prohibiting men from going into the women’s dorm.
Boriske stated that he “didn’t believe there is a systemic gender or racial problem at Houston Fire Department”.
The June 13, 2009 roll call at Station 54 included a review of the harassment rules.
On June 19, 2009, cold water was shut off to the women’s showers and urine was splattered on the women’s toilet.
On June 29, 2009, captain log indicated that both women notified their captains that they were going to the city’s inspector general’s office to complain.

At this point, I would find it safe to say that, if the alleged incidents were allegedly occurring, then allegedly, these two women were allegedly displaying alleged and uncommon tolerance. And Boriske’s assessment was barely audible.

On July 7, 2009, the words “Die (racial slur)” and “(racial slur) Lover” were scrawled on the walls of the women’s dorm. Women’s lockers were grazed with the same marker. A picture of Draycott and her daughter, who had been killed in an auto accident and kept in Draycott’s locker, had the words “Die (racial slur)” and “Dead” written over their faces.
Draycott also claimed that men came into her room while she was off-duty, even though the area was off-limits to men and cut their toenails on her bed, used her desk drawers as Skoal spittoons, took her mattress and rifled through her locker.

Take the pictures out of the equation and look at the rest of it. Spitting tobacco juice into a desk drawer is just uncouth and you would never get the smell out. If you didn’t get the toenails out of your bed, it would be like lying on broken glass. How do make up stuff like that?

According to Draycott, she thought that the attraction to her room may be the TV that was in there, even though there were at least three other TVs in the station. Acting upon her suspicion, she took the TV out of her room and put it in her locker, only to come back to duty to find the TV out again. When she confronted her captain, it was decided that the TV would not be in her room.
Hours after telling reporters about their problems, the two women were finally issued keys for their personal lockers.

Would anyone care to make a guess as to how expensive the keys to the lockers are going to be, regardless of the outcome of the complaints?

Tuesday, 7/21/09 – Keyes and Draycott have agreed to take lie detector tests, following accusations that one of them may be behind the graffiti, so Jane Draycott agreed to take a polygraph test that, according to her attorney, she passed.

The results may not be admissible in any court proceedings, but it has powerful sway with the public, where credibility has been questioned.

Wednesday, 7/22/09 – The probe is delayed because the lawyers who were hired by the city were found to have ties to the city’s attorney.

Thursday, 7/23/09 – A letter describing a meeting between Houston city council member Jolanda Jones and the Houston Professional Firefighters’ Association is made public. Jeff Caynon, president of the HPFFA and who is black was called a “house Negro” by Jones. Jones claimed that she was only repeating what she had heard from others.

Wednesday, 8/5/09 – Draycott was ordered to provide a handwriting sample to the inspector general.
The city hired two law firms for $190,000 to look for “institutional” problems in the fire department.

So far, a quarter million dollars has been spent on a “bridge to nowhere” and in a city where not too long ago, they were struggling with keeping fire trucks in service.

Tuesday, 12/8/09 – The review of the fire department conducted by the lawyers was completed with recommendations made for improving the fire department. The report shows no systemic problems, but rather, isolated problems and the report comes out just 4 days before the elections.
Keyes went back to work but to a different fire station. Draycott stayed on paid administrative leave.

Thursday, 12/17/09 –The legality of the court order for the handwriting sample submitted by Draycott is questioned by a civil rights attorney. City counters that it was done within the legal framework.

Thursday, 1/14/10 – A letter asking female firefighter Jane Draycott to stay away from her job was read on Wednesday, January 13, 2010 by fellow firefighters at Station 54. She left after four hours and will not return to work until the probe is complete, according to her attorney.

Friday, 1/15/10 – Draycott told Houston KTRK that when she returned to Station 54 on Wednesday, January 13, 2010, she was met by Chief Boriske, his command staff and Captain Brian Williamson who read a letter. Chief Boriske described it as a “team-building” meeting that didn’t go well. Draycott left after four hours of what she called “four hours of harassment”.
Newly elected Mayor Annise Parker condemned the meeting and Chief Boriske for allowing it. Mayor Parker stated that poor treatment of women in the department will stop.
In the midst of sexual harassment allegations, the HFD Pipes and Drums organization unveiled their fund-raising calendar. The cover displays a “scantily clad” female firefighter. It was quickly pointed out that the fund-raising calendar is not sanctioned by the Houston Fire Department.
Draycott insisted that she will return to A shift at Station 54 and “will not be run off”.
Still, questions of disciplinary action over the “team-building meeting” remain.
Former head of the Black Firefighters’ Association Otis Jordan called for Chief Boriske to resign, claiming “the department is out of control”.
Mayor Parker called for Chief Boriske to investigate the behavior of Captain Brian Williamson and two other firefighters who read letters aloud to Draycott upon her return.
The Mayor vowed to take appropriate action once the inspector general’s investigation is complete. She also wants guidance on whether departmental rules were violated by anyone involved with the HFD Pipes and Drums fund-raising calendar.
Heather Arnold, the Houston firefighter who posed for the cover of the calendar said “that she was honored to do it for such a good cause”.

So, in case you lost track, you now have attorneys for both sides, the Mayor, City Council, Inspector General’s office, Chief Boriske, the Houston Professional Firefighters’ Association, former head of the Black Firefighters’ Association and City Councilwoman Jolanda Jones ALL involved in this matter AND with little agreement on what if anything should be done.

Tuesday, 1/19/10 – Chief Phil Boriske stepped down as chief and to return to his previous position as District Chief. Executive Assistant Chief Rick Flanagan was appointed interim Chief by Mayor Parker. It came one week after a public rebuke by Mayor Parker for his handling of Draycott’s return to Station 54, where he was present while letters opposing her return were read.
Jeff Caynon, president of the Houston Professional Firefighters’ Association said that “Boriske was a victim of his own good nature and management style…opportunist politicians, extremist activists and disgruntled city employees…”
Houston Fire Department announced a new program for young women who want to be firefighters. CampHoustonFire will take qualified, high school females into the program to give them a “hands on learning experience about the rigors and rewards” of firefighting.

Saturday, 1/23/10 – Boriske will return as the District Chief to Station 78.
Captain Brian Williamson was transferred from Station 54 to Station 53.
Captain Isidro Tamez of Station 54 was transferred to Station 102.
Four other firefighters from Station 54 have requested transfers.

In closing, it is very apparent that, should the allegations prove to have merit, then it is imperative that corrective actions be taken to address the immediate internal problems. Then, a plan to address any future issues of the kinds described must be put into place and enforced with zero tolerance for violations.
Everyone has the right to a workplace free of harassment of any kind.
It is very clear that there is much to do to repair the damage that has already been done to the public’s perception of their fire department.
In the meantime, the good men and women of Houston Fire Department will fulfill their oath to the citizens of Houston.


Source links:
http://www.khou.com/news/Female-Firefighter-in-HFD-graffiti-claim-b...

http://www.thegrio.com/2009/07/racist-radio-message-under-investiga...

http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/hotstories/6816557.html

http://www.firefighternation.com/forum/topics/concern-raised-about-...

http://www.click2houston.com/news/19992272/detail.html

http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/editorial/6522319.html

http://abclocal.go.com/ktrk/story?section=news/local&id=6948558

http://www.fdnntv.com/Meeting-Female-Firefighter-Leaving

Related links:
http://www.allbusiness.com/government/government-bodies-offices/131...

http://abclocal.go.com/ktrk/story?section=news/local&id=6937694

http://app1.kuhf.org/houston_public_radio-news-display.php?articles...

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2 comments:

  1. I believe in standing by brothers but in this case they were not acting as brothers but rather terrorists to the overall perception of the fire service. Brothers help and protect thier sisters as children, why are we not doing this as adults in the Fire Service as Brothers and Sisters? Cameras watching the door "only" to the female quarters would have stopped or validated all allegations in this situation. Chief Boriske handled this situation grossly inappropriately. He almost acted as though he was guilty himself. I do not believe that allowing transfers out of Station 54 fixed the problem, in my opinion there should have been terminations. Lead with leadership!

    ReplyDelete
  2. As I am so often reminded in cases like this one, the "official" report is not out, so some are "reserving" their opinions until then.
    What they are missing is that the DAMAGE has already been done to their public persona.
    I hope to see the "official" report during my lifetime. I mean; it's only been eight months since the allegations became public.
    Where is Houston FD's sense of urgency and what kind of backlash are the good men and women of the HFD getting from those they serve?
    Unfortunately, the broad brush is out and it's not painting a very pretty picture.

    ReplyDelete

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