CalFire Engineer Contests Demotion Over Red Light Camera Gesture

Today’s burning question: I am an engineer… well, I was an engineer. Anyway, I was going through an intersection that had a red light camera and we had our red lights and siren going and I knew the camera was going to take our picture, so I gave them a “two thumbs up” gesture. My department demoted me back to firefighter. Can they get away with that? Oh, and I was driving kind of fast at the time… the camera said it was something like 60 miles per hour… but the other cars were all stopped.

Answer:  Son, if you worked for me – you and your officer would both be demoted – and he’d likely be facing a stiffer penalty than you would.  Nevertheless, CalFire firefighter Patrick O’Donoghue is challenging his July, 2011 demotion from engineer. He is accused of gesturing to a red light camera with both hands off the wheel. The engine he was driving was going 60 mph at the time. The case is pending before an administrative law judge from the state personnel board.

O’Donoghue’s attorney, David J. Givot, did not dispute his client used poor judgment, but argued that the penalty is excessive. Given the incident happened in November, 2010 and he’s still not back behind the wheel, I would tend to agree. A decision is expected within 90 days.

And by the way – NFPA 1500 and best practice calls for a mandatory stop at all negative right of way intersections (red lights, stop signs). It may not be the law, and it may not even be the standard of care – (but then again it might be… only a jury knows for sure) – but its a lot smarter and safer than blowing through red lights at 60 mph.

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.
  • Chip Comstock

    Crossing a traffic controlled intersection without the right of way, without stopping, is the single greatest liability risk in the fire service.

    • Chip

      He’d be facing manslaughter charges if (and I know it is a BIG IF) there was an accident and someone in either vehicle died. It would be textbook “recklessness”.

      I suppose I have a bit more sympathy for the driver than I have for the officer… (and I don’t have much sympathy for the driver). What is the officer’s excuse?

  • Gyro

    The union will go to bat for him and he will be fine. A demotion is not that bad….In our department I witnessed a firefighter get terminated for leaving a dirty dish in the sink. He got off lucky.

    • Yikes

      That dish must have been REALLY dirty!!!

  • Kevin

    As A Lt. I have ordered the engineer to STOP the truck in the middle of a response and exit the vehicle. Another FF drove the rest of the way. You either drive in a safe responsible manner or you dont drive. End of story.

    • Kevin

      Its called leadership… not to be confused with friendship. Trying to be everyone’s buddy is dangerous when it causes people to look the other way at dangerous practices.

  • Authorized emergency vehicles displaying a lighted red lamp visible from the front and sounding a siren as necessary are basically exempt from all traffic laws in California (CVC 21055. There is no requirement to stop. However, 21055 does not relieve the emergency vehicle operator from driving with due regard for the safety of others (CVC 21056).

    Personally, I think that mandatory stops are generally too strict, provided that the emergency vehicle slows down to, including a complete stop, a speed that allows a complete stop if need be. The demands to drive safely at 1pm and 1am aren’t the same. Of course the caveat here is that enough emergency vehicle operators have, time and time again, shown themselves incapable of using good judgement to the point that such restrictions are required.

    Also, just to note, 60mph through a red light is never going to qualify for “safe” It’s more of a “California Stop” (rolling stop) type speed than freeway speeds.

  • ukfbbuff

    In Cal Fire the Engineer-Driver/Operator, in Riverside Unit/FD (and State Wide)is the Company Officer in some cases.

    He did violate the Unit’s Policy of failing in coming to a Complete Stop at all Stop Signs and Lights, as per the CVC, and NFPA Recommendations.

    How this works out over time is something we will eventually find out.

    • ukfbbuf

      Wow… that is something I had never considered – a career department where the officer/senior member is the driver.

      I know that situation arises in the volunteer service quite often – but in the career service – that seems to me to raise another leadership question – this one to the department leadership: why do you suppose FDNY, Boston, Chicago, LA, etc. etc. pay an officer NOT TO DRIVE – but to supervise the driver…. I mean – what did you think was going to happen if you have an engineer supervising… well.. himself.

      And several folks have contacted me off line about this story and without revealing names – it appears at the heart of the story is the fact that other Calfire engineers who pulled similar stunts have not faced similar discipline…

      Which goes back to my bigger leadership question – why do you suppose FDNY, Boston, Chicago, LA and other major fire organizations assign company officers to supervise engineers… and what did you think would happen if you choose not to. If CalFire has multiple incidents of reckless driving by engineers – perhaps the solution is not just to persecute (execute) the few drivers they actually catch red handed… that just gives folks motive to further conceal the misconduct. Maybe the solution is to put company officers on every rig.


    The Cal Fire Academy teaches new engineers to slow to a stop at a red light. Period. End of story.

    This “engineer” violated dept. policy and deserves his demotion. If he was working with a captain, the captain deserves punishment as well.

    This stunt could have cost someone serious injury or death, just so some joker could get a laugh back at the station.

    He got off easy.


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