FDNY Firefighter Claims Retaliation for Exercising Free Speech Rights

An FDNY firefighter who claims he was retaliated against after raising concerns about a suggestion he might be required to turn hose streams on protestors, has filed suit against the city and six ranking officers. Omar Wilks filed suit contending he was disciplined, transferred and demoted for exercising his First Amendment rights to voice his concerns.

The suit names Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro, Chief of Department Thomas J. Richardson, Chief Daniel Brown, Deputy Chief Fred Shaaf, Chief David Morkal, and Assistant Commissioner Carlos Velez. The complaint alleges:

  • Firefighter Wilks… has a history of speaking up against inequalities, unethical conduct, and discrimination at the FDNY.
  • Indeed, during the protests spawned by the murder of George Floyd, a superior in Plaintiff’s firehouse instructed Plaintiff and other firefighters to assist in controlling protesters by using the fire truck’s water hoses.
  • Firefighter Wilks objected and insisted that such an order not be followed.
  • Plaintiff insisted that fire hoses were not to be used for crowd control and that he would not use the fire hose on protester and nor would he permit others to do the same.
  • Plaintiff escalated the order and his protest thereof throughout the fire department, which resulted in an Order banning the use of fire hoses for crowd control.
  • Throughout the beginning of this year, Firefighter Wilks sent several correspondences to elected officials such as the City Council, State Assembly, Congress, and NYS Attorney General, as well as senior FDNY personnel, including the Commissioner, regarding discriminatory actions by the FDNY and an environment at the FDNY that is hostile to Black firefights and civilians, and rife with discrimination.
  • These correspondences outlined to elected officials as well as Commissioner Nigro and senior FDNY personnel that the FDNY, which receives significant amount of public funding, was engaging in discriminatory hiring practices, permitting racism and retaliation to permeate the organization, was not adequately diversified, did not represent the CITY in key executive positions and in higher ranks, and that people of color were not being treated fairly at the FDNY.
  • The correspondence complained of the fact that FDNY Black Civilian Workers and Black Firefighters are marginalized every day in the FDNY.
  • Plaintiff also complained about the lack of diversity in the FDNY’s upper ranks and executive staff.
  • Plaintiff requested that the Commissioner of EEO resign due to his lack of EEO enforcement and meaningful investigation and action to stem racism in the FDNY.

Wilks was reportedly suspended for 30 days and transferred following his complaints. The suit alleges three counts: a violation of Wilks’ free speech right under the US and New York State constitutions, retaliation, and a count of aiding and abetting.

FDNY has reportedly had a policy dating back to the 1960s prohibiting the use of hose streams on crowds.

Here is a copy of the complaint.

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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