Coverup Alleged in Lawsuit Filed over FDNY Assault

A brawl between two firefighters in their Queens fire station on July 30, 2009 has resulted in a lawsuit being filed in Queens Supreme Court. FF Keith Thompson alleges that FF Stephen Buonavita assaulted him, and that their Lieutenant, Charles Piranio, attempted to cover up the incident.

The beating was so bad that Thompson allegedly needed reconstructive surgury. Piranio allegedly ordered firefighters to take Thompson to the hospital in a personal vehicle and to say he was injured in a bar brawl.

Buonavita has already pled guilty to assault and disorderly conduct charges, and was required to reimburse Thompson for his uncovered medical bills and attend an anger-management program. Disciplinary charges against Buonavita and Pirano are expected.

The details of the case and the coverup sound eerily familiar to the New Years Eve, 2003 assault on Firefighter Robert Walsh that resulted in a great deal of negative publicity, numerous disciplinary actions (including the termination of FF Michael Silvestri, demotions and forced retirements), and a $3.75 million settlement for Walsh.

Both cases are consistent with the Robin Hood Syndrome that exists in many fire departments across the country. The firefighters view themselves as noble and good (which – by the way – most are), and cast the city administration into the role of the Sherriff of Nottingham (which by the way…..). Under what possible set of circumstances would one of Robin Hood’s men surrender one of their own to the evil Sherriff?

Last spring at the EFO Symposium, Dr. Denis Onieal recommended a pretty decent book for all to read, titled How the Mighty Fall, by Jim Collins. The book talks about the 5 stages of decline – for an organization as well as for a person. I was particularly struck by a quote about how a common element in the decline process is self-deception: we deceive ourselves – and in the process contribute to our own demise:

“Whenever people begin to confuse the nobility of their cause with the goodness and wisdom of their actions… they can … easily lead themselves astray.”

Given the current polarization that exists in so many fire departments across the country – looking the other way at wrong doing may seem like the right thing – the noble thing – to do… but it just perpetuates the problem. It is part of that self-deception that can contribute to a "Fall", personally or organizationally. For some more thoughts on the problem of looking the other way…. and the extent of wrong doing….. Download The Problem Lite  (give it a second to load).

Here’s some news coverage on the assault and coverup.

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.

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