Portsmouth Firefighter Suspended After Speaking With Media About Staff Shortages

PORTSMOUTH, VA – A firefighter was recently suspended, according to union sources, for talking to the media about staff shortages.

Nathan Clark, a member of International Association of Firefighters Local 539 and a City Council candidate, wouldn’t name the firefighter or say when or how long the suspension was. But it appears that firefighter is union President Rusty Quillin.

Quillin talked to WAVY in December after a man died in a house fire around 2:40 a.m. in the Churchland area. He said he was concerned that “staffing issues created a problem,” and questioned whether the department could have responded faster to the fatal fire, according to WAVY.

City Manager Lydia Pettis Patton suspended a firefighter because he spoke with reporters about “the numerous vacancies within the department,” Clark said.

The first engine responded to the December fire within six minutes and 30 seconds, followed by a second engine a couple of minutes later. However, the nearest ladder truck was not manned because of short staffing, Clark said. Therefore, a different ladder truck, from the downtown station on Effingham Street, responded. It took 18 minutes to arrive, Clark said.

“No one can really say whether it would have changed the outcome, but if the ladder was in service, it would have been there in six minutes,” Clark said. “It was not. It was there in 18 minutes.”

In December, Deputy Chief Mike Stockton, a spokesman for the fire department, told WAVY that dispatchers call for two engines and a ladder truck each time there is a fire call. He said the units, including the ladder truck that traveled from Effingham Street to Churchland, didn’t go any farther than normal.

Clark said that’s the problem. The department has been understaffed for years. Until recently, it had simply been lucky, he said.

In May, the council froze 17 fire department positions and about two dozen Police Department positions to save money.

According to February vacancy data from the city, there are 16 frozen fire positions and 15 vacant positions.

Councilman Bill Moody said the firefighter never should have been suspended because the information he relayed was public. The council publicly voted to freeze positions in May, he said.

“It’s no coincidence that our crime is off the charts in 2015, and now we are having incidents where we don’t have enough staff to man our fire trucks during emergencies,” Moody said.

Councilman Danny Meeks said although it’s a personnel issue and falls under the city manager, the suspension is “a hard pill to swallow” because the frozen positions were discussed publicly.

“Obviously, he has a constitutional right to speak,” Meeks said. “He wasn’t giving out any top secret information. Much of that information can be” obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.

Councilman Mark Whitaker would not comment because he said it was a personnel issue.

The city has an administrative policy that says nonroutine media inquiries must be sent to the communications department and that routine media inquiries must be directed to the appropriate department representative. An employee who violates the policy is subject to disciplinary action, the policy states.

Moody said he thinks the city’s media policy is similar to the council’s $1,500 fine for speaking about a closed session.

“It is an effort to squelch public information, and both of them need to be torn up and thrown in the trash,” he said.

From The Virginia Pilot

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