Most of the 17 California state firefighters who were fired last year because they drank alcohol during a training academy will return to work in 2018, according to Cal Fire and their union.
Cal Fire in April had announced that the 17 would be dismissed from state service because they drank in the evenings during their seven-week training. The code of conduct prohibits drinking for the duration of the training, except on weekends.
Cal Fire agreed to reduce the punishment to an eight-month suspension for eight of the firefighters, the department said. Two of them will receive a one-year suspension.
Two more cadets are still fighting their punishment and are expected to appear before the State Personnel Board next month. The five others resigned or did not contest their dismissals.
Since a 2014 scandal in which an instructor murdered his girlfriend, Cal Fire has tried to change a persistent partying culture that took root at its academy in Amador County. The killing led to a California Highway Patrol investigation that revealed regular alcohol consumption after hours and alleged cheating by cadets on exams.
Firefighters are advised before they begin the academy that they are not to drink during their assignment there, except when they leave for weekend breaks.
Cal Fire firefighters often don’t go to the academy until they’ve worked for the state for several years in seasonal positions. When they graduate from the academy, they can become permanent, year-round firefighters.
Losing those jobs — even the seasonal ones — means giving up a reliable six-figure income.
Cal Fire Local 2881, the union that represents state firefighters, negotiated some of the settlements. Other firefighters sought private attorneys to help them with their cases.
Union rank-and-file director Tim Edwards said the recurrence of a drinking crackdown at the academy shows the department has a long-term cultural problem to address there.
“The underlying circumstance is these guys are excited and celebrating,” Edwards said, adding that the union has been advising people not to drink there. “Don’t do it. The department is serious. The public is serious. Don’t do it.”
The department’s description of how many firefighters it disciplined because of the most recent academy drinking crackdown has fluctuated. At least a dozen other firefighters were punished with short-term suspensions because they did not tell instructors when they learned that their peers had drank at bars or restaurants during their academy assignment.
In the 2014 case, career firefighter Orville “Moe” Fleming, 56, was convicted of second-degree murder for the killing of Sarah Douglas, 26, whom he had met on an escort website when he was married to another woman. After stabbing her in the bedroom of their Elk Grove home, he was a fugitive for 16 days.