The heroic reputation that embraced this city’s Fire Department, one of the oldest west of the Mississippi River, has taken a beating recently, something the new chief has vowed to remedy.
Trouble started last July, when three on-duty engine companies attended a “porn star costume ball” and one firefighter found himself accused of sexual assault. A broad investigation by the city revealed an “Animal House” culture permeating some corners of the department. By year’s end, two dozen firefighters had been dismissed or disciplined for a range of indiscretions: cruising local bars on firetrucks, giving joy rides to civilians, drinking on the job.
Just when the department doused what chortling headline writers called “flaming hormones” in the firehouse, word flared anew last week of another sex scandal: a captain and three firefighters -- one of them a woman -- accused of engaging in group sex last year at their fire station.
Mayor Heather Fargo and the City Council are roaring their disapproval. The scandal dominated Sacramento talk shows all week and turned into an easy one-liner in business offices. An editorial cartoon in the Sacramento Bee depicted the accused department personnel entwined in a fire hose. The caption: “Desperate Firefighters.”
“It’s a very embarrassing chapter for our city,” said Fargo, who has been buffeted by calls and e-mails from disgusted residents. “This has tainted not only the entire Fire Department but the whole city workforce, unfairly.”
Innocent bystanders in the 600-employee department are feeling ticked off, frustrated and embarrassed to wear the uniform. A few firefighters told their union boss they’re uneasy about hitting the street to solicit public support in the annual charity drive for a medical center burn unit.
“They’re angry at their own brothers and sisters in the department, and rightfully so,” said Capt. Brian Rice, a 20-year veteran and president of Sacramento Area Firefighters, Local 522. “This is killing us.”
The scandals spotlighted a systemic problem not uncommon in male-dominated workplaces: an unwritten code of silence.
By some accounts, rumors about problems at Station 12 had rattled around for months among the rank and file.
Officials suspect the liaisons, which involved two of the men having sex with the woman firefighter while a third man kept watch, started nearly a year ago and may have continued even after department behavior came under intense scrutiny last summer. Two of the men and the woman are married.
Word of their on-duty indiscretions reached top Fire Department officials Jan. 21, when one of the four participants confessed. The accused were immediately put on paid administrative leave while Chief Julius Cherry launched a new investigation. He has vowed to wrap it up within 30 days and to clean up the troubled department once and for all.
Cherry seems up for the task. An articulate go-getter who escaped the Midwest Rust Belt by joining the Air Force and then shifting to a career as a firefighter, Cherry put himself through college and law school while rising through the ranks over the last three decades. While many peers developed their golf games on days off, Cherry toiled as an attorney.
The first-year chief, well liked within the department and by most city leaders, finds himself responsible for fixing a mess that erupted just weeks after he became chief last June.
“I’m numb at this point,” said Cherry. “I’m beating myself up over this, like everyone else in the department. But the fact is that four adults caused this by making a consenting decision that was wrong. They brought terrible disrepute and embarrassment on the department.”
The department’s difficult months began July 2 with the porn star costume ball.
A bawdy event hosted at a local Radisson Hotel and featuring former Playboy centerfold Teri Weigel as emcee, the ball attracted 1,800 scantily clad revelers--and half a dozen on-duty firefighters.
By the end of the evening, a 24-year-old woman reported to police that one firefighter forced her to perform oral sex inside one of the firetrucks parked outside the ball.
Though the young woman has filed a civil case against the city and firefighters, Dist. Atty. Jan Scully declined to file criminal charges, concluding that the case couldn’t be proved.
But the department punished the porn star ball attenders as well as other firefighters implicated in the broader investigation.
Four fire captains or firefighters resigned or were fired. Twenty others were suspended or punished, as the investigation revealed disturbing patterns that went beyond the shenanigans at the porn star ball.
Department investigators learned that some fire crews had a weekend habit of trolling Midtown watering holes on a virtual babe watch in their fire engines. Women they picked up at nightclubs sometimes accompanied the engine companies on fire calls. In the past, one crew had driven in its firetruck to Goldie’s Adult Store to get a porn star’s autograph.
Such problems were not new. In the mid-1990s, on-duty fire crews cruised a nearby regional mall or hit a local waterslide amusement park to ogle bikini-clad women.
Some displays of firefighter virility once had formal blessing. Like many around the country, Sacramento’s Fire Department union published a fundraising beefcake calendar featuring bare-chested firefighters. The calendar was dumped last year, in part because one of the firefighter models got in hot water for trafficking in steroids.
Aggressive steps to shift the department’s culture didn’t happen until after the porn star ball.
Buffeted by criticism, department brass launched an internal affairs unit for the Fire Department and revamped the code of conduct.
Issues still cropped up. In December, several City Council members expressed exasperation over the revelation that a battalion chief approved the use of a department ladder truck so a firefighter from nearby Stockton could propose to his girlfriend through her second-story window at Cal State Sacramento.
The City Council became irate after learning that five firefighters slated for termination had -- unbeknownst to the public -- been deemed “salvageable” and allowed to keep their jobs. Councilman Robbie Waters in particular chided the chief and City Manager Robert P. Thomas. Giving offending firefighters a second chance, he said, sent the wrong message.
Some City Council members now believe the latest scandal, though hardly welcome, may have a silver lining: that the department’s attitude is shifting enough to break the code of silence.
“We’re at the point,” Fargo said, “where everyone in the department is finally beginning to understand their own integrity comes into question if they don’t come forward and report these sorts of problems.”
For now, city leaders are standing behind Cherry and the city manager. But they will need to act quickly and decisively. That may mean only one conclusion: The guilty should be fired.
“They better clean this up, and we’re giving them a chance to do it,” said Fargo. “People want us to hold them accountable. They want to make sure they take care of it this time.”