GARDEN GROVE, CA – The son of Garden Grove Mayor Bruce Broadwater was hired as a city firefighter despite a criminal record, and his work there subsequent to his October hiring has drawn severe reprimands from his superiors, documents show.
Rookie firefighter Jeremy Broadwater’s job performance has included potentially life-threatening mistakes on medical calls, according to internal department records obtained by the Register. Doubts about his abilities have resulted in him being removed from at least one fire call and have led a captain to call him “unsafe” and recommend his termination.
The department’s handling of Broadwater was part of the reason the union firefighters cast a 51-0 vote of no confidence in Fire Chief David Barlag in June, and is one of the issues being examined in an ongoing independent audit of the department.
Fire Chief David Barlag did not return repeated calls from the Register. Jeremy and Bruce Broadwater also did not respond to requests for comment.
Multiple calls to City Manager Matthew Fertal resulted in two email responses that did not address the Broadwater hiring. He questioned whether Broadwater’s colleagues are prejudiced against Broadwater, but did not elaborate.
Jeremy Broadwater, 37, was one of 10 new hires in October, from a field of 500 applicants.
Fellow firefighters and a citizen watchdog have complained about what they perceive as preferential treatment in hiring the mayor’s son.
Between 1996 and 2000, Jeremy Broadwater was arrested by Garden Grove police on 10 occasions and was convicted of misdemeanor assault, resisting arrest, public drunkenness and shoplifting, court and police record show. While misdemeanors don’t automatically disqualify a candidate for firefighter, some familiar with typical fire department hiring practices say the highly competitive firefighter job field makes it unlikely an applicant with such a record would be hired.
“There are a lot of qualified candidates for every job who probably don’t have that kind of background,” said Carroll Wills, spokesman for the California Professional Firefighters, a statewide organization that represents rank and file firefighters.
The firefighter application form asks about the job seeker’s criminal history. Retired fire Capt. Dennis Standrod said he’s never seen anyone convicted of a misdemeanor make it to the interview portion of the process.
“They screen them out before they even get to that part,” said Standrod, who spent 32 years with the Garden Grove Fire Department and said he’s served on at least 10 firefighter interview panels in three cities, including Garden Grove. “It’s pretty well-known if you have anything on your record, you’re not going to be hired.”
In the wake of the no-confidence vote – in which the union cited low morale and lack of leadership – Fertal contracted with Management Partners for an investigation into firefighters complaints. City Councilman Chris Phan said the audit will include scrutiny of Broadwater’s hiring and job performance.
“I would certainly be upset if somebody had a smoother road to a job because of who they knew or because of their connections,” Phan said.
‘Unsafe’ in the field
On a June 13 call to attend to a 90-year-old man’s complaints of chest pains, Broadwater reported the man’s blood pressure and pulse were normal and stable, according to a captain’s internal department report detailing the incident.
That would have resulted in a routine trip to the hospital. A second firefighter double-checked the vital signs, however, found the blood pressure high and the pulse irregular, and the man was rushed to the hospital.
The captain wrote that protocol had been changed for Broadwater because of his frequent errors, so that a second firefighter would routinely double-check his readings.
“He has a documented history of giving incorrect vitals and making numbers up,” the captain wrote.
Two captains and a battalion chief detailed eight incidents in reports obtained by the Register. In one incident, Broadwater began to move a fall victim without first checking for spinal damage, according to a supervisor. Other reports sent to department brass say he failed to wear gloves while testing blood and plugged the wrong attachments into a heart defibrillator.
“If FF (fireighter) Broadwater was placed in a situation where he would have to act independently, the patients would gravely suffer,” a second captain wrote.
A third captain, Jeff Wilkins, Broadwater’s direct supervisor for three months, recommended termination in the rookie’s six-month evaluation.
Wilkins, a 29-year department veteran, had earlier replaced Broadwater on a strike team assisting in an out-of-county fire because of safety concerns.
“He was doing things that were unsafe, things that would cause injury to himself, other firefighters and the public,” Wilkins said in an interview with the Register. “One of the things I’ve told (new firefighters) is, ‘I expect you to make mistakes, but I don’t expect you to make the same mistakes.’ And that seems to be an issue with this individual. In my opinion, no, it did not seem he was progressing.”
All four reports mention attitude issues. One captain describes “Broadwater staring me down in an aggressive manner. I truly felt uncomfortable with his demeanor and attitude.”
City Manager Fertal questioned the validity of the complaints, saying Broadwater’s critics were predisposed to say bad things about him.
“It is my belief that certain evaluations were prepared with prejudice against Jeremy Broadwater,” Fertal wrote in an email. In a follow-up email, Fertal declined to discuss Broadwater, citing the confidentiality of personnel issues.
Councilman Phan acknowledged that possibility and said he hopes the independent audit will get to the bottom of the conflict.
“I’m not there, so I don’t know if it’s a coordinated attack to smear Jeremy or if there’s incompetence,” Phan said.
‘An excellent record’
Nepotism complaints arose shortly before the department hired Broadwater on Oct. 14.
He had worked as an unpaid intern in the fire department for two years; it’s not uncommon for applicants to bolster their resume with internships, stints as volunteer firefighters or work with private ambulance companies. He’d been previously employed by the city in other jobs, most recently as a park ranger.
City code states that an applicant’s efforts to be hired cannot be helped by being related to another city employee or council member.
John Clark, then-director of human resources for the city, said after the fire department hiring that Broadwater did not receive any advantage because of his family connections.
“Jeremy has been a full-time employee for six years and has an excellent record,” Clark told the Register in November. “We knew him and knew what he could do.”
Clark has since left the city and has been replaced by his second-in-command, Laura Stover. Stover did not return calls for comment.
Ellen Medalle of the Orange County Fire Authority’s Human Resource Division attested to the high level of competition for firefighter jobs, noting that 1,353 people applied for 30 jobs in her agency in 2013. She said that a criminal history isn’t an immediate disqualification, but that the department typically vets out those who have had disciplinary action.
“We’re very particular and screen individuals that have behavioral problems or criminal histories,” she said.
Garden Grove City Councilwoman Dina Nguyen, an attorney and former Superior Court clerk, said she didn’t think applicants should be rejected simply because of convictions years before – and she spoke well of Broadwater.
“In my experience, the court provides people the opportunity to rehabilitate and become productive citizens,” Nguyen said. “Half of the people who come out of the court system don’t end up as successful as Jeremy. I think he’s done well and become a productive citizen.”
And reports of Broadwater’s unreliable job performance?
“It’s a departmental issue, and if he has performance issues, that should be addressed by his immediate superiors,” she said.
Broadwater remains on the job, assigned to a Garden Grove station. His first-year probation period ends Oct. 14. Standrod said that roughly 30 percent of new firefighters are let go by the time they finish their probation.
City watchdog Tony Flores, who has been critical of the Broadwater hiring, is among those who want him given a close look before then.
“What happens if he hurts somebody?” Flores said. “He injures a citizen and it’s not just the citizen, but the lawsuit that then gets filed against the city.”