ESTERO, FL – Estero firefighters willingly showed some skin when they posed for photos in a 2011 calendar for charity.
But some say their chief crossed the line this month when he asked five of the models to serve alcohol shirtless at a private party to promote the calendar. That request put them in an awkward situation Dec. 8, they say, and left one fire station unmanned.
Chief Scott Vanderbrook has since apologized to the five men he asked to attend the event, two of which were on duty that evening, said Roberto Medina, district vice president for the Estero Fire Department union.
“They said they all felt like a bunch of little puppets,” Medina said. “I have spoken with the chief and he has spoken with each of the five men. He has apologized for putting them in an awkward situation.”
The chief’s request raised flags for the five firefighters who didn’t understand why the calendar, which they produced for the first time this year, would need to be promoted just weeks before a new year began and at someone’s home, Medina said. They were told to wear their uniform pants to the party.
Two firefighters on duty were told to drive a department car instead of a fire engine.
“At all other (public relations) events, if they’re on duty they go on a truck and leave from the site if there’s a call,” Medina said. “If there was a call, they’d have to drive back to the station to get the truck.”
Three men were supposed to be based at Station 42 that night, Medina said, two of whom were directed to attend the party. The third was relocated to another station per department policy so he wouldn’t be alone.
Once the five firefighters arrived at the party, Vanderbrook asked the men to serve alcohol to the 22 women gathered at the home, Medina said. When asked to remove their shirts, Medina said the men thought Vanderbrook was joking.
“The guys thought it would be a public event or calendar signing,” Medina said, adding that the Estero department regularly engages in community events.
There are strict policies in place regarding alcohol and on-duty firefighters, Medina said. Alcohol cannot be on premise at the stations, and the firefighters asked to attend the party said the presence of alcohol made them uncomfortable, Medina said.
Several attempts to reach Vanderbrook and Estero fire commissioners Tuesday were unsuccessful.
In an email obtained by NBC-2, a firefighter wrote that when they told Vanderbrook they were uncomfortable going shirtless, he asked them to wear tank tops or to rip the sleeves off T-shirts. They reluctantly agreed after Vanderbrook insisted, the email said.
Estero Fire Commissioner Richard Schweers told NBC-2 public safety was not at risk during the party even though no one was at Station 42 that night.
“They were capable of going on a call. They had a car there, not a truck, and they had full gear,” Schweers told NBC-2. “They could have gone on a call.”
Schweers told NBC-2 the party was raising money for Estero students to attend college.
Medina said he did not know whether money was exchanged in the arrangement to have the firefighters at the function. He does not expect punishments for either of the two firefighters on duty that night.
“I would like to see us move on, and we are,” Medina said.
The 2011 calendar was produced for charity, and proceeds went to Partners for Breast Cancer Care, a local non-profit, Medina said. The department is not planning on a 2012 calendar.