ORANGE COUNTY, CA – Rank-and-file firefighters saw it as a harmless rite of passage.
Administrators viewed it as an unacceptable – and possibly criminal – lack of professionalism.
What is certain is that a hazing incident involvingOrange County Fire Authority Station 22 inLaguna Hills has deepened the rift between firefighters and administration. In a confidential survey of 259 union members, firefighters labeled the hazing investigation as a “witch hunt” and another example of the administration punishing firefighters to satisfy the public.
The debate is centered on some bad haircuts and hungry firefighters.
In April 2012, the crew from Station 22 showed up at a nearby In-N-Out Burger, dressed in uniform and arriving in OCFA vehicles.
But something was off-kilter with six of the firefighters. They had wild haircuts, such as reverse Mohawks and clumps shaved off their scalps. One firefighter sported a brightly painted pate.
They were probationary employees, all being hazed by their veteran colleagues. At least one customer didn’t feel firefighters should be clowning around on the public dime.
The irate customer notified Fire Chief Keith Richter, who initiated the unpopular investigation – even consulting with the Orange County District Attorney’s Office.
In all, six probationary employees and seven others were disciplined for unprofessional conduct, said Battalion Chief Kris Concepcion. Details of the discipline were withheld by Concepcion under state confidentiality laws for firefighters, but respondents in the survey said they were given days off. All of the workers involved are still employed by the OCFA.
At least two of the probationary employees were held down for their haircuts – a potential assault – but county prosecutors declined to file charges, Concepcion said.
Firefighters in the union survey chalked the hazing up to normal camaraderie.
“What could have been handled by a simple, stern warning, turned into the biggest morale-busting waste of money I have ever seen,” said one firefighter.
Said another, “Similar events have happened hundreds of times.”
Not anymore, Concepcion said.
“We are taking appropriate measures to make sure nothing like this ever happens again at the OCFA.”