Haverhill Firefighter Is Paid While In jail…. For Four Months

Firefighters are renowned for their ability to adapt and overcome – at emergency scenes as well as through the trials and tribulations of life. A Haverhill, Massachusetts firefighter reaffirmed that reputation by serving a four month jail sentence in New Hampshire, keeping the incarceration a secret from the Haverhill Fire Department, and continuing to collect his regular paycheck the entire time.

Firefighter Kevin Thompson, received a six-month sentence after pleading guilty on January 28, 2010 to driving on a suspended license while being a habitual offender. He was released on May 27, 2010. Remarkably, Thompson’s license had been suspended by the State of New Hampshire back in 1992, when he was originally cited for being a habitual offender. His license has been suspended in Massachusetts since 1987. For those not from New England, Haverhill borders New Hampshire.

Thompson used a combination of vacation time, personal leave, and swaps with other firefighters to stretch his leave out to cover the four months of his confinement. However, toward the end of May, Fire Chief Richard Borden became suspicious, and just about the time Thompson was released, took steps to place him on administrative leave.

The ever resourceful Thompson was one step ahead of the chief. When he reported back to work and was served with notice of being placed on administrative leave pending an investigation, Thompson  went to the city's retirement office at City Hall, where he submitted his retirement papers, effective immediately.

As calculating as Thompson was, the case may not be closed entirely. The Mayor of Haverhill has ordered an investigation of the entire matter, and may move to block Thompson’s pension. There is also a little issue about driving fire apparatus without a license that the police department would like to discuss with him.

What can fire departments do to protect themselves against personnel who’s off duty antics create such media firestorms? The first step is to ensure that there is a rule mandating that all personnel immediately report if they have been arrested, charged criminally, or receive serious traffic violations. While in cases such as this, it is unlikely that an employee with Thompson’s penchant for ignoring the law would have bothered to report such a violation, the failure to report the offenses gives the department a clear basis for disciplining the member. Oddly enough, it is possible that Thompson may not have violated any rules and regulations by keeping his incarceration a secret aside from the ever-vague “conduct unbecoming” charge.   

The second step is to perform periodic background checks on all personnel, including driving record checks. Can you imagine trying to defend the fire department from a lawsuit by someone who was killed or injured in an accident where Thompson was driving fire apparatus? It is not inconceivable that liability in such a case could include the company officer in charge of the apparatus, and others in the chain of command – so certainly Thompson’s actions put other firefighters at risk.  Yearly background checks are recommended.

For more on the story.

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
  • John K. Murphy

    Agree – there is a serious lack of oversight in this issue. This guy should have never remained in this department and if he was as smart as he thinks he is, then that energy should have been placed in becoming a better firefighter than trying to scam the system. We would do driver’s license checks when we performed mandatory bunker clothing checks and during EVOC recertification – at least twice a year. A valid driver’s license was a MANDATORY condition of employment. Loose it and say goodbye to your job.
    The Chief was asleep at the wheel on this one and I agree that if involved in a MVA with the fire apparatus, it becomes an un-defendable position for the fire department.

  • Thanks John
    You know, I hate to be too hard on the chief. Especially here in the Northeast, things like regular background checks and driving record checks are not common, and certainly raise some collective bargaining issues for us. Are checks necessary???… Absolutely yes, but frankly most fire departments up here are not doing them.
    There is another perspective I have on this case that might be a little different from most peoples’. I see the problem touching on what I call the Robin Hood Syndrome. Most fire departments today are highly polarized with the firefighters on one side and the chief/city administration on the other. The firefighters view themselves as fighting a virtuous battle with the forces of evil.
    To expect one firefighter to turn in a brother firefighter is the equivalent of expecting one of Robin Hood’s men to turn in another of Robin Hood’s men to the Sherriff of Nottingham. Its not going to happen, except in the most outrageous of cases. I would expect that is exactly what happened here, and the chief was kept in the dark about exactly what was happening.
    The problem is that by the average firefighter (and officer) tolerating this type of conduct by keeping it quiet, it allows some outrageous things to occur. In the Haverhill case it was covering up the fact that a firefighter was serving time in jail. In other cases it has been drinking on duty, having sex in the stations, using apparatus to pick up women, or a variety of other activities that when brought to public light (as they inevitably will be), leaves us trying to answer some very hard questions about how taxpayer funds are being spent.
    Its a lot harder to argue for proper funding when your fire department is on the evening news because of some outrageous misconduct that simply cannot be explained or justified.

  • John Murphy

    Interesting analogy – it’s the institutional silence that harms the fire service. We have a duty to each other and to our profession. What will it take to make this happen? Has it evolved to public embarrassment and litigation?

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