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Firefighter handcuffed: CHP boss says incident was 'aberration'

FiresHighway and Road DisastersDisasters and AccidentsScience

With pictures of the freeway confrontation between a California Highway Patrol officer and a Chula Vista firefighter drawing attention nationwide, a top CHP official met Thursday with the San Diego County Fire Chiefs Assn. to assure the chiefs that the incident was an "aberration."

Meanwhile, the chief of the San Diego Fire and Rescue Department, the county's largest fire department, called on his personnel not to ratchet up the controversy by leaving comments online.

"I told everybody, 'Stay off the blogs, be respectful,'" said San Diego Chief Javier Mainar.

At the county fire chiefs' previously scheduled meeting, CHP Chief Jim Abele reiterated the joint statement issued Wednesday after a meeting between CHP and Chula Vista fire officials.

"He told us that they are not going to get into the practice of handcuffing firefighters," Mainar said.

The incident occurred Tuesday night at the scene of a rollover crash on Interstate 805.

The Chula Vista Fire Department arrived first, with a firefighter-engineer parking his fire truck behind an ambulance to protect ambulance employees and the crash victims who were being loaded for transport to a hospital.

A CHP officer ordered the firefighter to move the fire truck because he felt it was unsafely blocking a lane of traffic.

When the firefighter refused to immediately move the truck, saying he needed to confer with his captain, the CHP officer handcuffed the firefighter and put him in the back of a patrol car, where he remained for about 30 minutes.

No arrest was made.

The incident was caught by a TV news crew on videotape and shown on television nationwide and splashed on websites.

On Wednesday, after a meeting at the Chula Vista Fire Department, the CHP and Chula Vista Fire Department issued a joint statement expressing "utmost respect for each other and our respective missions."

The officials went on to call it "an isolated incident" that would be the topic of  future joint training sessions "in an ongoing effort to work more efficiently  together."

The San Diego department also had a truck at the accident. When the CHP ordered it moved, the firefighter driver checked with his superior and then moved the vehicle, Mainar said.

The issue of fire trucks at the scene of freeway accidents is a topic of discussion at joint training sessions, including one just six weeks ago, Mainar said.

While the CHP is designated as the lead agency on freeway accidents, a transfer of authority may not have occurred after the CHP arrived at the scene, officials said.

At the fire chiefs' meeting, there was agreement on one point, Mainar said: "We all agreed that this could have been handled better."

Like the Chula Vista chief, Mainar said the Chula Vista engineer, identified as Jacob Gregoire, a 12-year veteran, did nothing wrong in telling the CHP officer that he needed to check with his superior.

"The engineer did everything that he should have done," Mainar said.

Clashes between police and firefighters are not unheard of — in New York, for example — but the Chula Vista incident was a rarity locally.

"We pride ourselves on how we get along in this community," Mainar said.

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tony.perry@latimes.com

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