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Harassment allegations at Wyo. FD raise questions about training, support, culture

An investigation into a complaint in the Casper Fire-EMS Department led to a greater review of sexual harassment, workplace hostility policies


City of Casper Fire-EMS Department/Facebook

By Sofia Saric
Casper Star Tribune

CASPER, Wyo. — In July 2022, the city of Casper received some unsettling news about one of its fire captains.

The city paid $10,000 for an outside investigator to look into a complaint about the employee’s behavior. After interviewing 20 members of the force, the investigator concluded the captain violated the city’s sexual harassment and workplace hostility policies.

But just a few months earlier, one of the fire department’s battalion chiefs conducted an internal investigation into the same captain — and arrived at a completely different conclusion.

It took the city of Casper four more months and another $5,000 to nail down the discrepancies between the investigator’s findings and the battalion chief’s internal probe, documents obtained from the city of Casper show.

The city concluded not only had the captain harassed at least one colleague, but his two supervising chiefs had neglected their duty to fully investigate and address the complaints against him.

When it was over, the fire captain had resigned, the battalion chief was demoted and the other supervisor, a deputy chief, was dismissed.

But records reviewed by the Star-Tribune, as well as interviews with government officials, current and former fire personnel, legal consultants and other experts, suggest this isn’t just a story about a bungled investigation.

It’s about the unique challenges of addressing allegations of wrongdoing in the fire service — where managers without investigatory expertise may find themselves responsible for looking into their own colleagues and friends.

It’s about the not-so-unique challenges facing workplaces across the country, such as low harassment reporting rates, fears of retaliation and the difficulties of finding effective policies and trainings.

And it’s about how, just a few years after a different sexual harassment scandal led the fire department’s top official into early retirement, a hostile working environment again stood in the way of department employees having equal opportunity to do their jobs to keep the city safe.

The allegations

About 80 men and women serve the city’s fire department, responding to emergencies ranging from blazes at family homes to heart attacks.

They are housed in five stations across the city. Casper firefighters work across three rotating shifts — each 48 hours long.

When they aren’t responding to calls, they are living together at their respective stations. The workplace is mostly men; nationally, about 5% of career firefighters are women. In Casper, the figure is about the same.

The men and women are divided into groups called platoons. There are three platoons in Casper, which, when fully staffed, have five captains, seven engineers and nine firefighters.

Each 21-person platoon is supervised by a battalion chief. The three battalion chiefs report to three deputy chiefs, who in turn report to the fire chief, the leader of the department. The chief’s boss is the city manager.

Following an anonymous tip about a mishandled investigation at the fire agency, the Star-Tribune filed several records requests with the city of Casper in early 2023.

In June, the city released one document that went into detail about the probe: an April 24 memo sent by Fire Chief Jacob Black to Casper’s Civil Service Commission recommending the demotion of then-Battalion Chief Justin Leinonen.

Here’s what happened, as told by Black’s memo.

In early 2022, Leinonen was approached with concerns about a fire captain under his command. The complaint centered on allegations of workplace and sexual harassment.

City supervisors are expected to act on all reports of harassment and hostility that come across their desks, so Leinonen initiated an internal investigation into the complaint. This practice isn’t unique to the city; it’s common in all kinds of organizations.

The memo states Leinonen approached multiple employees about the fire captain’s behavior. He interviewed them over the span of roughly three days, the document indicates.

Black’s memo suggests Leinonen uncovered evidence that a female fire service member was subject to repeated inappropriate behavior by the captain. (The memo indicates the female employee was not the same employee who initially came forward to report the captain.)

In a written statement to Leinonen, the female employee shared that on one occasion the fire captain had described a sex dream to her at work.

It happened while she and the captain were preparing for a service call, she wrote in a statement that was quoted in Black’s memo.

The female employee and the fire captain walked to the right side of a fire engine while another crew member walked around to the other side.

As the woman put on her bunker pants, the captain suddenly began recounting the dream. He made a point of noting “the dream was not about his wife,” the female employee wrote in her statement.

She thought “it was too much detail to share,” but the captain was known “to kind of take things a little too far with his humor,” her statement said. The next morning, the fire captain insinuated to the female employee that he’d had another explicit dream — this time, about her.

The memo includes two other alleged reports of sexually harassing behavior by the fire captain.

One witness told Leinonen the captain had made sexual comments about the female employee when she was working out. The female employee indicated to Leinonen she did not hear this comment, the memo states.

In another interview, a fire service member said he overheard the captain talk about a female employee’s breasts when she wasn’t there. The memo does not specify whether these remarks were directed toward the same woman as the other two reports.

The fire captain is also accused of acting with hostility toward members of the public on at least one occasion.

The female employee who reported the incident involving the explicit dream also told Leinonen about a time when a civilian nearly backed a car into a fire engine, the memo states. The fire captain “jumped out of the Engine and started banging on the driver’s window of the car,” she wrote in a witness statement.

Her statement says she told Leinonen about other moments when she saw the captain display potentially hostile behavior, but those were not detailed in Black’s memo.

According to the document, Leinonen’s investigation notes indicate the incident with the car made the female employee afraid of the fire captain. The memo states the female employee did not want to participate in Leinonen’s investigation due to fear of retaliation from the captain.

Another member of the fire department told Leinonen that the captain had a reputation for yelling at civilians on duty and ridiculing fellow firefighters for “not doing their jobs,” according to the memo.

Black’s memo doesn’t say how many employees Leinonen interviewed, and it doesn’t say when any of the above alleged incidents occurred. It also doesn’t specify whether any of the reports were corroborated by other witnesses.

The city denied a request for the battalion chief’s notes on the grounds that the documents are exempt from the Wyoming Public Records Act.

City officials also declined to answer clarifying questions about the content of Black’s memo, since personnel matters are typically confidential.

More about the Wyoming Public Records ActMany of the documents the Star-Tribune requested for this story were withheld by the city of Casper on the grounds that they count as personnel records and documents put together for the purpose of investigating and enforcing personnel policies, both of which usually can’t be disclosed to the public under the Wyoming Public Records Act.

There isn’t a concrete definition for what is or isn’t a personnel record. Under state law, records related to personnel investigations are only supposed to be withheld if the release of the record would constitute a “clearly unwarranted invasion of privacy.”

Some of the information requested by the Star-Tribune was also withheld by the city because it said to contain attorney-client privileged information, another exemption listed in the state law.

After wrapping up his investigation, Leinonen reported to his supervisor, then-Deputy Chief Cameron Siplon, that the fire captain “denied any wrong doing” and all the employees Leinonen spoke with were “either unable or unwilling to corroborate any concerning behavior” by the captain, the memo states.

Leinonen gave the accused fire captain a documented coaching session regarding his management style the next day, which “did not address any of the conduct in regard to workplace harassment or sexual harassment,” Black wrote. The memo suggests this was the extent of the disciplinary action taken against the fire captain at this point.

That wasn’t the end of the matter. Roughly three months later, an unidentified fire service employee lodged another complaint against the fire captain. This time around, the complaint was brought directly to the city’s human resources division. The captain was still causing problems, the individual reported, and it was severely affecting the female employee’s ability to work.

According to Black’s memo, HR was told the woman was so afraid of retaliation that she was “taking personal protective precautions to feel safe” at home.

The first third-party investigationThe city decided it was time to hire an outside investigator.

“Obviously, we try to handle things in-house the best we can,” said Eric Nelson, Casper’s city attorney. “But there’s going to be instances where, because of the parties involved or because of conflicts, we’re going to look at it and say, ‘In this case, it makes more sense to get a third party to come in and do the investigation.’”

Officials brought in Hampton O’Neill, a local attorney, to look into the complaint. O’Neill did not respond to a request for comment.

The fire captain was placed on administrative leave in May 2022 for the duration of the third-party investigation, according to Black’s memo.

Nearly two months later, after interviewing 20 fire department members, O’Neill concluded the fire captain had violated city policies on sexual harassment and workplace hostility.

The Star-Tribune spoke to the fire captain on multiple occasions, but he declined to comment.

The Star-Tribune confirmed the names of the former fire captain and female employee using a staff list of current and former fire personnel, their job titles and the duration of their employment at the city. Additional sources familiar with the agency also corroborated the former captain and female employee’s identities.

The Star-Tribune is withholding the name of the female employee because we do not identify victims of alleged harassment without their permission. To further protect the privacy employee, who made it clear she just wanted to move on with her career, we are also withholding the name of the accused fire captain.

In August 2022, Black recommended the fire captain’s termination, the memo states.

Before any formal disciplinary action took place, the employee resigned and was hired by another fire agency.

But that still wasn’t the end of things.

The second third-party investigationIn the wake of O’Neill’s findings, Leinonen and Siplon, the supervising deputy chief, were asked to hand over documentation from Leinonen’s internal investigation, according to the April memo.

Evidently, Black didn’t like what he saw.

There were also instances where Leinonen’s documentation appeared to contradict itself.

According to Leinonen’s personal notes on the investigation, Black wrote, the female employee said that, though the captain had said “some off color and weird things in the past,” she did not feel he had sexually harassed her and did not think anything was worth reporting to the city’s human resources division. But this conclusion appeared to omit the specific incident of sexually harassing behavior the same employee recounted in her witness statement to Leinonen.

Black also noted Leinonen neglected to speak with other employees who could’ve shed further light on the captain’s behavior. Leinonen allegedly didn’t interview an employee who was there when the fire captain acted hostile toward a civilian, for instance.

In light of these inconsistencies, Black requested O’Neill conduct another investigation into how Leinonen handled his inquiry into the captain.

In November, officials received O’Neill’s second investigation report, which “revealed that substantial information had been given to BC Leinonen during his investigation” and concluded that Leinonen had, like the fire captain, violated the city’s sexual harassment and hostile work environment policies, the memo states.

City officials interviewed Leinonen on the matter in December. According to the memo, Leinonen said that he felt the evidence of wrongdoing he uncovered in his investigation was simply not “severe enough to do anything with.”

When Siplon was asked about the outcome of the investigation, he said he also “didn’t feel it was appropriate to go to HR,” with Leinonen’s findings, Black’s memo states.

Ultimately, Black concluded Leinonen and Siplon neglected their jobs by failing to “properly reveal and address” the information shared with them about the captain, according to the memo.

Not only did Leinonen and Siplon’s actions prolong the fire captain’s inappropriate behavior toward a female employee, causing her “to become fearful in her work place,” the bungled investigation harmed the whole organization by “causing the City to incur a substantial unnecessary financial impact, creating potential civil liability, breaking trust with our employees,” and creating an “incorrect message that our organization tolerates” harassment and hostility,” Black wrote.

In early 2023, Black recommended Leinonen’s demotion to the Civil Service Commission. The former battalion chief waived his right to an administrative hearing, and the board signed off on his demotion in April, according to additional records obtained by the Star-Tribune.

Leinonen, who is still with the department, did not respond to requests for comment, including a certified letter mailed to his home.

Siplon, meanwhile, had his employment contract withdrawn.

Like other higher-ranking positions in the city, deputy chiefs are contract employees. They aren’t protected by the Civil Service Commission, and dismissals without cause for these positions are not unheard of.

On Feb. 15, the day Siplon returned from vacation, he was told his contract was terminated, was asked to collect his things and “pushed out the door,” he told the Star-Tribune.

Siplon said he was not provided any details about the decision.

After working for the department for 26 years, Siplon thought he made a difference. He was left asking, “Did I?”

“It crushes your spirit,” Siplon said in an August interview with the Star-Tribune. "... The process of dealing with this has not exactly been healthy for me. There’s no closure.”

Siplon said although he provided some guidance to Leinonen during the investigation, he wasn’t directly involved.

When shown a copy of Black’s memo, Siplon appeared shocked by the testimony against the former fire captain. He said that was the first time he had seen the interview notes and witness statements from Leinonen’s inquiry.

The Star-Tribune doesn’t have access to any documents that could shed additional light on why the former deputy chief was fired.

“I would have rather them tell me, ‘You screwed this up, we’re going to terminate you for these reasons,’” he said, “because then I’ll be able to know what I did wrong.”

Policies and training

It wasn’t supposed to happen like that.

The city of Casper has internal policies meant to ensure that when employees come forward with complaints, managers respond as swiftly, discreetly and fairly as possible — so problems get settled the first time.

The idea, in theory, is for them to conduct initial, informal reviews of complaints to gather basic facts, then get HR involved to head up a more robust investigation if necessary. Supervisors receive training to make sure they understand those expectations.

“Everybody knows what to do,” said Tracey Belser, the city’s support services director, which includes human resources.

But according to Siplon, he and Leinonen did not, in fact, know what to do.

As it turns out, the city’s human resources division doesn’t have a set procedure or even recommended guidelines for how supervisors should conduct internal investigations. There’s no official requirement for managers to loop in HR when they start looking into a complaint, either. Nor is there written guidance on when mid-level managers like Leinonen should be the ones to head up an investigation, as opposed to HR or a third party like O’Neill.

In other words, a supervisor with no prior experience conducting personnel investigations — and no standard protocol to reference — could handle an allegation of harassment or hostility start-to-finish without the city’s human resources division ever knowing about it.

Even though the rule isn’t written in stone, Black, the fire chief, indicated to Star-Tribune reporters that in wake of Leinonen’s investigation he now tells managers in his department that they must notify HR if a complaint crosses their desk.

All supervisors who work for the city participate in a harassment training every year that provides some pointers on how to do investigations, but it’s fairly superficial. The training is provided through the Wyoming Association of Risk Management, the city’s liability and property insurance pool.

According to materials provided by the association, the 2023 version of the training dedicates two presentation slides to internal investigations.

The first slide encourages supervisors to consult HR when initiating investigations: “HR has the experts in employment law — use them!” it states.

On the second slide, there are eight example questions for leaders to consider when looking into a complaint (“Was conduct disrespectful?,” “How frequent?,” “How severe?,” “Work performance affected?” and so on.)

It doesn’t go into more detail than that — there’s no information on how many people to interview, how to document and corroborate evidence or how to watch out for conflicts of interest, for example.

As for city regulations, the city’s employee manual includes one section on general harassment, one section on sexual harassment and one section on workplace violence.

The sections date back to 2002 and each run about a page long.

Say you’re a rank-and-file employee for the city and your colleague constantly picks on you. It’s getting to the point where it’s practically impossible for you to get through your day.

The first thing you should know is that the employee manual requires you to tell someone about your situation. You can always go to your immediate supervisor, but if you’d feel more comfortable bringing your complaint elsewhere, you’re also free to go straight to your department head, the human resources director or the city manager.

The manual guarantees that your complaint will be “thoroughly investigated and will be treated with the utmost confidence consistent with resolution of the problem.”

Another provision explicitly forbids anyone from retaliating against you for lodging a complaint, as well as against anyone who participates in the investigation into your complaint. The manual also forbids false reporting.

If the investigation finds your report credible, “appropriate corrective and/or disciplinary action will be taken,” the policies say — which could include firing the employee who harmed you or even recommending their prosecution, if there’s evidence they committed a crime.

As far as city policy goes, that’s pretty much it.

More about harassment, sexual harassment and workplace violence

The city’s rules and regulations provide specific definitions for what counts as workplace discrimination and violence, and includes the definition of sexual harassment used in federal law.

How should workplace complaints be investigated?

You may be wondering why city supervisors who don’t have backgrounds in HR are allowed to investigate harassment and hostility complaints in the first place.

To reiterate, that’s not an unusual practice. Many organizations prefer to address issues in-house and at the lowest level possible.

Why? For one, not all disputes between employees are equally severe. Many can be resolved without having to get higher-ups involved.

There’s also the fact that mid-level managers tend to be more familiar with rank-and-file employees. They often have a lot of valuable context that someone working in the upper echelons of an organization (or someone working outside the organization completely) wouldn’t.

That’s especially true of the fire service, Siplon said.

“We take care of our discipline internally,” he said. “We try not to reach outside because we don’t feel that people understand our jobs completely.”

But there are just as many risks as benefits to this approach. First, while lower-ranking supervisors might know their employees much better, investigating personnel complaints is not their area of expertise.

And it’s not the kind of thing you can just pick up; harassment is hard to investigate no matter who you are. The quality of an inquiry often rests solely on the investigator’s ability to coax out testimony from reported victims, eyewitnesses and the accused.

“You are necessarily reliant on people giving you a full and honest accounting of what they observed,” said Matt Gray, a University of Wyoming psychology professor who specializes in sexual violence prevention. “And there are social consequences at play — there are social realities that make it difficult for everyone to feel unencumbered to come forth and share in detail what they observed.”

Then there’s conflicts of interest. The closer an investigator is to the people they’re investigating, the more difficult it may be for them to remain impartial.

Ideally, HR complaints should be investigated by “somebody who doesn’t mean squat” to the people involved, said Patricia McMahon, outreach and education coordinator for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s Denver Field Office.

“You first have to have a complaint process where everybody who’s investigating is trustworthy,” she said.

But in the fire service, a career often compared to having a second family, impartiality is a tough standard to meet.

“My basic opinion is the fire (service) doesn’t do internal investigations very well,” said John Murphy, a former deputy fire chief in Washington state who now works as an attorney and consultant.

Murphy has been conducting third-party investigations into fire departments for years. In his experience, it’s very difficult for supervisors “to be neutral and not have a bias either for or against that particular person” being investigated, he said.

Does that mean fire agencies should never be trusted to look into their own complaints? Not at all, said Curt Varone, another career firefighter and attorney.

They just need to make sure they have the resources to do it right, he said.

Any supervisor trusted with looking into a complaint should know the basics of planning investigations, conducting interviews, handling evidence, making credibility determinations and preparing investigation reports, said Varone, who still serves as a deputy chief in a Rhode Island fire agency in addition to his legal work.

He also recommends that agencies set up a system for tracking complaints. That allows departments to keep an eye on what kinds of personnel issues are most common, how reporting rates change from year to year and so on.

Assuming the proper sideboards are in place, Varone’s general rule of thumb is as follows: If a supervisor receives a complaint and makes a “good faith determination they can resolve it at their level,” let them handle it.

“But if the interpersonal dispute arises a second time, it has to be kicked up,” Varone said.

That’s just his take, though. In the fire service, there aren’t any personnel policies or trainings widely regarded as the gold-standard, he said.

“It’s an area where people’s experience is really sort of driving best practices,” said Varone. “But there are no national standards on this.”

Belser, Casper’s support services director, said the city’s always open to changing policies as needed. She’s currently working on a rewrite of the employee manual, in fact. But revising the harassment and hostility policies aren’t a priority right now — the policies seem to be working just fine, Belser said. She said she doesn’t really hear any complaints about them.

Rethinking the systemThe Star-Tribune reached out to over a dozen fire officials across Wyoming in an attempt to learn of other agencies’ policies and trainings. Only one — Rock Springs Fire Department Chief Jim Wamsley — responded.

Wamsley, who’s been the agency’s chief for almost nine years, said “he can’t ever remember having one” internal complaint.

He, in part, attributed that to being “fairly proactive” and regularly attending trainings. Those courses, which cover topics from disciplinary challenges to court cases, are often tailored toward people in the firefighting industry, Wamsley said.

For another point of comparison, the Star-Tribune spoke with Casper Police Chief Keith McPheeters about how the police department handles personnel issues. It differs from other parts of city government in that it has its own in-house human resources program.

Employees lodge complaints against colleagues with some regularity, he said, and there is a high rate of successful resolution without major consequences. There were 50 internal complaints investigated last year, McPheeters said. Of those, 72% were sustained.

In some cases, the agency’s internal policies were not equipped to help an employee in a specific situation, he said. When that happens, the department deems it a policy failure — “a flaw, omission, or inadequacy in the governing policy caused the incident” — rather than putting the employee at fault, McPheeters said.

That’s not to say there are never issues. Earlier this year, two women filed a lawsuit against McPheeters alleging he failed to protect two of his female officers from repeated sexual harassment in 2021. That lawsuit is ongoing.

Still, the department just received accreditation from the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, which is regarded as the top police credentialing authority. The department went through a lengthy process, which resulted in about half a dozen recommendations for change to receive the accreditation, McPheeters said.

Even the most sophisticated system for reporting and investigating complaints may not be enough, though.

For all the work organizations have done over the past few decades to strengthen their HR policies and train employees to spot, report and investigate wrongdoing, a growing body of research suggests that most of these efforts haven’t made a significant dent on harassment rates.

Gray, the psychology professor, pointed to a 2021 literature review on sexual harassment in the workplace by two researchers at the University of Michigan titled “Putting People Down and Pushing Them Out,” which made a handful of suggestions on how organizations could be approaching the problem differently. The Star-Tribune reached out to the authors of the article, Lilia Cortina and Maira Areguin, but they did not respond.

The authors found that sexual harassment and workplace hostility tend to show up in male-dominated workplaces — especially those with hierarchical and competitive cultures — and in environments that repeatedly let bad behavior slide. In other words, harassment and bullying can often be linked to larger problems with the organizational climate.

“This is primarily a context problem then — one of ‘bad barrels’ rather than bad apples,” the authors wrote.

But most anti-harassment programs aren’t designed with this in mind, they found. Organizations generally only focus on preventing and addressing individual incidents of wrongdoing.

So, what strategies do seem to make a difference? For one, workplaces that traditionally lean male should work to recruit and promote more women, Cortina and Areguin wrote.

Second, organizations need to make sure they aren’t just combating harassment and hostility, but also the behavior that nurtures it — like hyper-competitiveness among employees, the authors wrote. Cortina and Areguin also suggested making an intentional effort to educate employees on what model conduct looks like, as opposed to only focusing on what not to do.

Trainings shown to have an impact are delivered by human instructors, include active instruction rather than videos or passive lectures, last at least four hours and are tailored to the unique needs of the audience.

No cultural issues

Sexual harassment and hostile behavior have been a problem in the recent past for Casper Fire-EMS.

In 2017, an unknown source circulated copies of internal emails sent by then-Fire Chief Kenneth King. They revealed King had repeatedly made degrading comments about women, among a host of other inappropriate remarks, using his city email.

Sexist messages were sent to multiple fire personnel — “from higher ranking staff to line firemen” — according to previous reporting by the Star-Tribune.

At the time, two fire service members told a reporter the revelations about King deepened what was already a divisive culture within the department. Not long after the emails were leaked, King announced he was retiring early.

That was six years ago. Black, Leinonen, Siplon and the accused fire captain all worked under King.

Are the former fire chief’s actions relevant today, especially given what transpired with the fire captain?

Black, who took over as chief in spring of 2022, said no.

He said King’s tenure had no lasting impact on the department’s culture and doesn’t influence the way he leads the agency.

“That’s never been in my optic,” he said. “I am who I am.”

Women on the force are treated “equal and like everybody else,” said Black. “It’s like having a sister.”

In a June statement responding to interview requests from the Star-Tribune, two of the three women who worked for the department at the time said much of the same.

Gender is a “non-factor” in the fire service, Jenn Henderson, a fire captain, and Hope Sonnesyn, a firefighter, wrote.

“We have been asked explicitly if a toxic culture exists in the Casper Fire-EMS Department, particularly in the instances of the safety of female employees,” they wrote. “In regard to a question of cultural toxicity, the answer is emphatically no.”

The incidents involving the former fire captain “have absolutely no bearing, impact or relevance to the culture of our workplace,” they continued. “Those actions are just that — isolated, without precedent and subsequently resolved.”

Henderson and Sonnesyn said “the support we have had, currently have, and will continue to have from our brother Firefighters, in our 25 years of combined service, is unlike any other dynamic found in any working environment, anywhere else.”

The notion that there are any cultural dividing lines in the department is a “blatant falsehood,” Henderson and Sonnesyn wrote. To claim anything different would be akin to pushing a “scripted narrative,” they stated.

For more insight into the climate at the agency, the Star-Tribune also asked to speak with the Casper Firefighters Local 904, the labor union representing the department’s fire service employees. The group did not respond to a request for comment.

What’s at stake?

Harassment can do serious damage to a workplace.

First, targets of wrongdoing may have a hard time doing their jobs to the best of their ability.

In their literature review, Cortina and Areguin found that experiencing harassment is associated with conditions as wide-ranging as depression, anxiety, problems with sleep and concentration, nausea and substance abuse.

“It looks like somebody who’s maybe calling in sick at the last minute, or coming in late for work,” said Varone, the Rhode Island attorney. “It can look like all this other stuff, that you just have a bad employee, when in reality, it’s somebody who’s struggling with this.”

Acts of harassment don’t just affect the victim, though. It can also make work difficult for witnesses, according to McMahon, the EEOC coordinator.

“It’s a hostile work environment that you’re being forced to work in, even though it wasn’t against you,” she said. This is sometimes referred to as “bystander stress.”

On the other side of the spectrum, Varone said he’s seen instances where unpunished harassment and bullying actually led other employees to join in on the misbehavior.

When an agency doesn’t have the tools to properly investigate workplace complaints, it can create the impression that leadership doesn’t take workplace concerns seriously, which can damage employees’ faith in the department, he said. That can cause retention and recruitment problems for the agency going forward.

There are always a million things competing for fire agencies’ attention. Fire service members have to be proficient at putting out fires, performing technical rescues and providing life-saving medical care, to name just a few.

For that reason, it’s understandable why a department’s aptitude for handling workplace complaints might be on the rougher side, said Varone. But that doesn’t mean those skills aren’t just as important.

“We can get everybody on the same page when it comes to a structure fire or a car wreck, and that’s a wonderful thing,” he said. “But we need to take the same approach when it comes to our HR problems.”

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