Ind. city approves progressive discipline plan for firefighters
South Bend's matrix plan comes about six months after the department's 12 female firefighters raised issues
South Bend Tribune, Ind.
SOUTH BEND, Ind. — The city's Board of Public Safety Tuesday unanimously approved a discipline matrix for firefighters modeled after one it approved for police officers in July 2020.
The matrix introduces progressive punishments for firefighters who violate department policies.
There was little discussion at the board's monthly meeting about what prompted the fire department administration to create the new policy before the board voted 4-0 to approve it. The board received the proposal at its October meeting but wanted to delay a vote until the city posted the matrix on its website so that the public could provide input. No one from the public spoke at the meeting.
Fire Chief Carl Buchanon was not available for comment Tuesday, according to staff that answered his office phone. He was represented at the meeting by Assistant Chief Mike Damiano, who could not be reached by deadline.
The policy comes about six months after the department's 12 female firefighters signed a March 8 letter to Buchanon complaining that Capt. Clifford Powell had received a "slap on the wrist" for a Dec. 24 incident at the Twyckenham Hills station.
A female firefighter said he had "not only demeaned, harassed, and blocked her escape when he was verbally harassing her, but also battered her by striking her in the head."
The female firefighters were angry that Buchanon had only suspended Powell without pay for 24 hours, the same punishment as not reporting on time for a scheduled shift, despite it being his third disciplinary action.
"Over the years there have been incidents at the South Bend Fire Department that could be considered blatant violations of departmental policy, including sexual harassment, sexual discrimination, or inappropriate sexual acts within the fire stations, yet the majority of these incidents have gone unreported," the women wrote. "In one case, the female firefighter was made to feel it was her own fault and carried the burden of the harassment. However, in most cases, the consensus has been, 'Why bother reporting something when nothing will be done?'"
Board President Luther Taylor, who was fire chief from 1985-2007, said it's the department's first discipline matrix to his knowledge. Taylor said he liked that the matrix is similar to the one for police.
"I applaud Chief Buchanon and his staff for pulling this together," Taylor said at the meeting before the vote. "I think it's something that was needed. I would only suggest that you guys keep your eyes on this very closely and as you see items that need to be added or tweaked, that it come back to the Board of Public Safety."
The matrix states that under the same Indiana law that spells out disciplinary procedures for police, the fire chief can reprimand or suspend without pay for up to five eight-hour days, but the board must give final approval for suspensions that are any longer.
The matrix classifies policy violations from Level 1 to 6, with Level 6 being the most severe. Examples of Level 1 violations include not wearing a seatbelt, "rude comments, gestures or lack of courtesy," clothing or uniform violations, failure to advise of address or telephone changes, and unauthorized ride-alongs.
For Level 1, first violations receive an oral reprimand, second violations within three years bring a written reprimand, and third violations within three years call for three eight-hour days suspended without pay.
Level 6 violations include preventable at-fault collisions resulting in serious bodily injury or death due to gross negligence, felony criminal acts, intentional misrepresentation in reporting, cheating on tests or other assignments that are required for employment, and harassment or discrimination based on race, color, national origin, ancestry, religion, sex, gender identity, marital status, sexual orientation, age or disability.
Any Level 6 violations result in termination. The matrix gives the chief and board discretion to "declare extraordinary circumstances" and deviate from the presumptive penalties for all levels. Prior work history or lack of discipline history are not eligible mitigating factors for levels 4-6.
Damiano told the board that the policy had been submitted to Firefighters Local 362 for their review. Ryan Takacs, vice president of the union, declined to be interviewed but in a written statement, said "we did get to review, but had no input in its creation. Local 362 is satisfied that disciplinary issues will be handled uniformly in the future."
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