The Española Firefighters Union is calling for Deputy Chief Eric Tafoya’s termination for alleged abuse of power and retaliation against Union President John Wickersham.
The Union’s grievance, filed with the city of Española Jan. 23, was partially in response to a notice of possible disciplinary action, including termination, which Tafoya filed against Wickersham after Wickersham responded to a structure fire earlier this month at 312 Carr Lane while off duty and in plain clothes—a practice Wickersham says is not uncommon due to understaffing in the Department.
Tafoya’s Jan. 13 notice of contemplated disciplinary action against Wickersham claimed the firefighter bypassed the chain of command by calling elected officials and requesting heavy equipment from the city, and by acting independently from Incident Commander Pablo Montoya. It also criticized Wickersham’s lack of protected gear on the scene, his claim of three hours overtime and the eight-second video of the fire he posted to the Española Firefighters Union IAFF Local 4399 Facebook page.
“Your training and experience have included warnings regarding the dangers of ‘freelancers’ on the scene, situational awareness, the incident command system, and the proper use of the chain-of-command,” Tafoya wrote. “You chose to ignore policy and best practices in favor of calling elected officials and shooting video for Facebook.”
Tafoya said in an interview that he and other incident commanders are allowed to manage scenes in plainclothes. He declined to comment on whether policy allows him to actively fight fires in plainclothes, as he has in the past, or to comment on personnel matters.
Montoya said in an interview that he was the one to request a backhoe from the city—needed to partially demolish the building rather than enter it, due to dangers from its structural integrity as well as needles and human feces left by squatters—and not Wickersham.
He said Wickersham and Stephen George—also on duty off scene but not written up—both checked in with him but that he did not recall what work Wickersham may have done on the scene. He said off-duty responses may not be common but do happen, and that there are duties that can be performed without bunker gear.
“Some sort of gear is always necessary, whether it’s as little as a pair of gloves or eyeglasses,” he said. “There’s plenty of work to do to be sure.”
The Union’s grievance, written by Union Secretary Zack Logsdon and reviewed by Union officers, claimed the disciplinary action was a clear example of harassment and retaliation against a Union official, and that multiple Department and City of Española employees on scene were not wearing full protective gear.
“Deputy Chief Eric Tafoya’s wreck less (sic) abuse of power and blind obsession to remove a pillar of our department is inexcusable,” Logsdon wrote. “The relief sought is the termination of Deputy Chief Eric Tafoya for his blatant favoritism, harassment of a Union official, retaliation against a Union official and contemplated disciplinary action of ‘Termination’ to only Firefighter/Union President John Wickersham for the scene.”
Logsdon wrote that the decision to contact elected officials—City Councilor Justin Salazar Torrez and Mayor Javier Sanchez responded to the scene—was due to the house’s designation by the city as abandoned and hazardous. Montoya wrote in his incident report that they were a part of the decision to call the Streets Department to bring in a backhoe.
Wickersham said social media engagement with the public is important and standard in other fire departments.
“We put material out to the public to let people know what firefighters face on a daily basis,” he said.
This was not Tafoya’s first conflict with the Union. A July 2019 grievance alleged Tafoya failed to exercise progressive discipline when he attempted to suspend two firefighters without pay over an incident in which contract construction workers left sexually explicit advertisements, reportedly from Las Vegas, Nev., on a table in the fire station. Tafoya wrote at the time that firefighters present when the materials were left behind failed to remove them.
Former firefighter Enrico Trujillo resigned over the incident and issues with management in both the Department and the city government, maintaining he never touched the advertisements.
“This in no way includes the three current Lieutenants,” Trujillo wrote at the time. “Or any other fire department staff with the exception of the Deputy Chief Eric Tafoya.”
Tafoya and Wickersham also each documented a June argument in which each claims the other yelled at them while discussing the renaming of a ladder truck. Wickersham wrote then that Tafoya had previously yelled at him in discussions including ones about the pay plan and then-pending split between the police and fire departments.
In August 2019, the City Council dissolved the Public Safety Department, which previously joined the police and fire departments under a single public safety director, traditionally the chief of police. No formal process for the appointment of a Fire Department chief has yet been established in public meetings.
Wickersham said he wants to see a fire chief named soon.
“A chief that’s going to be here at the structure fires helping us out,” he said. “One that’s fair and doesn’t show favoritism.”
He said a meeting on the January grievance with Union officials present will come soon, and that Tafoya did not attend his informal meeting with city officials regarding the disciplinary action.