Fire Chief Joel Baker has fired two firefighters, Nicholas Schroeder and Anthony Stewart, who were attending classes on handling hazardous materials, after Schroeder allegedly stole a copy of the final exam and Stewart took photos of it.
The class was required because Schroeder and Stewart had been assigned to the department’s special operations division, where they learn the skills needed in order to perform such duties as cave rescues, boat rescues and handling hazardous materials in addition to their regular duties. Each member of the division receives an extra $150 per month.
According to Baker’s memo setting forth the grounds for firing the two, Schroeder and Stewart were attending a class hosted by the Williamson County Fire Marshal/Special Operations Division.
Schroeder was looking for a list of study questions in a file box at the back of the classroom when he found a packet of papers titled “Final Exam.” After he found the exam, Schroeder “dropped a copy of the final exam in front of (Stewart) saying, ‘Here it is, take pictures.’ Stewart took pictures and forwarded them to Schroeder. Stewart then put the exam on a table near the file box.
The instructor noticed that the exam was not where it should be and asked the class what they knew about it. No one came forward, but after class, the two told the instructor what they had done. In the meantime, Stewart deleted the pictures from his phone, which Baker construed as “destruction of evidence.”
“The actions of both firefighters are nothing less than theft and an attempt to cheat on an examination which allowed them to remain in Special Operations and continue to receive the Special Operations pay. Firefighter Schroeder stole the examination, which constitutes theft. Taking the exam and then giving it to Firefighter Stewart to take pictures of is dishonest, shows a lack of integrity, and is contrary to the ethical standards of the Austin Fire Department and the City of Austin,” Baker wrote.
He wrote much the same thing about Stewart, saying such behavior “brought discredit upon the Austin Fire Department, the City of Austin, their fellow firefighters, and themselves. Their behavior also demonstrates a supreme lack of judgment, morals, ethics, and trust, all of which the citizens of Austin expect and deserve from their firefighters. Their lack of integrity is a disappointment to us all. This indefinite suspension should serve as notice and precedent to all members of the Austin Fire Department that actions such as these will not be tolerated and will be punished to the fullest extent allowed.”
Both Stewart and Schroeder came to the Austin Fire Department from Houston. Schroeder has eight years of experience as a firefighter and Stewart has 11 years, according to Bob Nicks, president of the Austin Firefighters Association.
Nicks told the Austin Monitor Monday that Schroeder and Stewart have both appealed their suspensions to the Civil Service Commission.
Nicks said the two would not speak to the media at this time, but released the following statement:
“The two firefighters that received indefinite suspensions from Chief Baker did obtain access to a hazardous materials exam, and this act requires a disciplinary response. However, within 5 minutes of obtaining the exam, their actions weighed heavily on them and they decided to come clean.
“The Fire Chief only knows about their actions because they were honest and forthright in disclosing their actions. Their actions constitute a serious lapse in judgment and they deserve appropriate punishment for their mistake. But the Fire Chief’s decision to reject the temporary suspensions recommended by the two fire fighters’ supervisors and to terminate them is heavy-handed given their decision to voluntarily disclose their actions, and it does not take into account the numerous Austin Firefighters and Officers who have come forward to vouch for the integrity of these 8-to-11 year members of the fire service.”
An arbitrator will review the facts and make a decision about whether the two should be fired or receive some lesser punishment.