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.