Mass Civil Service Upholds Discipline of Springfield Lieutenant

The Massachusetts Civil Service Commission has upheld the discipline against a Springfield fire lieutenant for attempting to use the department’s disciplinary system to “target” another lieutenant with whom he had a disciplinary history. The case points to the need for fire departments to have a well drafted discipline policy.

The facts are complicated, but distilled down to bare bones:

  • Lt. Randolph S. Blake has been employed in the Springfield Fire Department since 1989, and has served as a Lieutenant since 2010.
  • Lt. Blake has a previous history of discipline.
  • On January 29, 2018, the Department suspended Lt. Blake for two days for harassment, conduct unbecoming a firefighter and witness intimidation of a fellow lieutenant, Lt. Kelly Jones.
  • Lt. Jones… was scheduled to testify … against former District Chief Marc Savage.
  • Lt. Blake sought to discourage Lt. Jones from appearing at the hearing. He sent Lt. Jones numerous text messages. While off-duty, Lt. Blake visited Lt. Jones at work and harassed him for over two hours, in a further attempt to discourage him from testifying.
  • On April 14, 2021, Lt. Jones was off-duty and at his home in Springfield when he saw his neighbor burning parts of a cut down tree in a metal trash can in his own yard at the corner.
  • When Lt. Jones called 911 at 7:57 p.m. to report the burning of the yard waste, a dispatcher answered the call.
  • Lt. Jones stated to the dispatcher that there was an illegal burning taking place and gave the address of his neighbor’s house.
  • Lt. Jones also gave his own address upon request from the dispatcher, but hung up when the dispatcher asked for his name.
  • The dispatcher called Lt. Jones back and asked for his name. Lt. Jones demurred because he feared retribution from his neighbor.
  • When the dispatcher began reviewing the rules and procedures of the SFD, Lt. Jones said, “Just disregard it. Let them burn in the backyard.” The dispatcher said, “Okay, thank you,” and ended the call.
  • Engine 6, manned by Lt. Blake and firefighters Private Donald Coleman and Private Miguel Toledo, was dispatched to the call. En route, Lt. Blake was able to confirm from the fire truck Mobile Data Terminal that the 911 caller was Lt. Jones.
  • En route, Lt. Blake called the dispatcher to ascertain whether the address was that of the burn location or that of the caller. The dispatcher confirmed that the address was that of the caller, and noted that the caller was uncooperative.
  • Engine 6 arrived approximately ten minutes after the 911 call, parking on the street near Lt. Jones’ neighbor’s property. Lt. Blake then sent Pvt. Coleman to Lt. Jones’ residence.
  • Lt. Blake and Pvt. Toledo then walked over to the scene of the fire at the neighbor’s house and observed that the illegal burning in a metal barrel was “pretty tame.” The three firemen extinguished the fire quickly, returned to the firetruck, and left.
  • Upon his return to the fire station, Lt. Blake called District Chief Marc Savage, his supervisor, and informed him that Lt. Jones had been uncooperative in reporting the fire at his neighbor’s property.
  • Lt. Blake then called the dispatcher about the 911 call. She said that the caller “did not want to provide anything,” including his name, cell phone number, or whether anyone was trapped, injured, or if there were hazardous materials in the area.
  • According to the actual 911 recording, the dispatcher did not ask for the caller’s phone number, whether there were injuries or hazardous material present, or whether anyone was trapped.
  • The dispatcher told Lt. Blake that the caller said, “Don’t send them. Let the place burn,” and reiterated that to Lt. Blake later in the conversation. Lt. Blake responded, “… that’s a problem.”
  • Lt. Blake called District Chief Savage back and relayed the conversation with the dispatcher.
  • Lt. Blake then preferred charges against Lt. Jones.
  • Lt. Jones responded on May 12, 2021 with a complaint against Lt. Blake for harassment, retaliation, embellishment, misleading statements, and not following the chain of command, the Department opened an investigation.
  • Because of the history among Deputy Chief Savage, Lt. Jones and Lt. Blake, Deputy Chief Hess asked the City’s Human Resources Department to take the lead regarding this matter.
  • Assistant City Solicitor Talia Gee, who also serves as the City’s Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer, conducted the investigation.
  • Upon receipt of the January 28, 2022 investigative report, the Department served Lt. Blake with a June 14, 2022 Notice of Contemplated Action, charging him with violations of Rules and Regulations.
  • On June 28, 2022, Deputy City Solicitor Kathleen Breck presided over the … hearing.
  • On July 22, 2022, Ms. Breck issued the Hearing Officer Report and Findings.
  • The hearing officer found just cause for progressive discipline, given that this was Lt. Blake’s third discipline.
  • The Commissioner adopted the hearing officer’s recommendations, and suspended Lt. Blake for four days to be served on August 5, 6, 7 and 8, 2022.
  • Lt. Blake filed an appeal with the [Massachusetts Civil Service] Commission.
  • A tenured civil service employee may be disciplined for “just cause” after due notice and hearing upon written decision.
  • An action is “justified” if it is “done upon adequate reasons sufficiently supported by credible evidence, when weighed by an unprejudiced mind, guided by common sense and by correct rules of law.”
  • The City has established by a preponderance of the evidence that it had just cause to discipline Lt. Blake for his conduct on and after April 14, 2021.
  • The undisputed evidence establishes a clear timeline of that evening’s events, which are sufficient for conduct violative of the Department Rules and Regulations.
  • The events of April 14, 2022 was not the first Department disciplinary hearing involving Lt. Blake, Lt. Jones and District Chief Savage. On January 29, 2018, the Department suspended Lt. Blake for trying to prevent Lt. Jones from appearing as a witness in a disciplinary proceeding against District Chief Savage. Three years hence, Lt. Blake targeted Lt. Jones again, this time via the Department complaint process.
  • Even if there were an absence of this negative history, the matter remains that Lt. Blake preferred charges against Lt. Jones – a peer, not a subordinate – without knowing all the facts. Lt. Blake never listened to the 911 recording, and relied on the dispatcher’s memory of her conversation with Lt. Jones.
  • This unreliable memory, Lt. Blake’s apparent retaliation against Lt. Jones, and Lt. Blake’s failure to follow the chain of command have brought us to this matter.
  • Thus Lt. Blake never had the authorization, means or the seniority to conduct the investigation of Lt. Jones.
  • Lt. Blake’s behavior caused Lt. Jones distress and constituted an abuse of the complaint process as a vehicle for doing so. Even as key allegations have been shown to be untrue – the substantial risk of tainting a firefighter’s reputation and career linger.
  • Engaging the full complaint process – including the preferring of charges – based on inaccuracies, falsehoods, and embellishments is an abuse of the system, an imposition on the time and resources of everyone involved, and a waste of taxpayer money.
  • A four (4) day suspension is more than justified under Article 16 §24B of the Department Rules and Regulations for conduct unbecoming a firefighter.

The case points to the importance of fire departments having well-drafted disciplinary policies and the need for proper training of officers in disciplinary matters. Very often, fire department rules and regulations state that an officer who becomes aware of a possible rule violation shall promptly investigate the matter. That may seem reasonable on its face, but it creates a number of problems. For starters, few fire departments provide training for officers on conducting investigations, nor outline the procedural options for doing so.

Authorizing officers to launch their own investigation when ever they think there’s a rule violation is a recipe for disaster. That means each officer can pick and choose if and when a possible rule violation has occurred and what the investigation will consist of. If you have 100 different officers you will have at least 100 different ways of deciding (1) whether to investigate, and (2) how the investigation will be conducted. Consistency in the disciplinary process will be impossible. There could conceivably be multiple officers conducting their own independent investigations into the same allegations. Perhaps more importantly, the system can become weaponized (or at least be perceived as being weaponized) as we saw in this case. Investigations should not be conducted by those with a bias for-or-against an accused or for-or-against the victim. Allowing officers to conduct their own investigations permits this to occur.

Another big concern in this case has to do with the preferring of charges. Preferring charges refers to a finding that probable cause exists to believe a rule violation occurred by a named member. This is not something that should be done by just any officer. In fact, a discipline policy should state that the only one with the authority to prefer charges should be the fire chief, although in some larger departments it may need to be delegated to another high-ranking chief officer.

What officers should be required by policy – and training – to do is report allegations of misconduct through the chain of command. That allegation is what is referred to as a complaint. Complaints once submitted should be routed to a chief officer who is a direct report to the fire chief. I will refer to that person the Chief of Professional Standards. The Chief of Professional Standards will then evaluate the allegations to determine (1) if they do indeed warrant an investigation, and if so (2) who will conduct the investigation (ensuring it is unbiased neutral party), and (3) how the investigation will proceed (formal or informal). This process ensures neutrality and consistency in the process. The Chief of Professional Standards may also have another assignment in the department (Assistant Chief of Administration, Assistant Chief of Operations) – but remains the point person for disciplinary matters up until they go before the Fire Chief for adjudication. In other words, the Fire Chief should not be involved in the investigation so that he/she can serve as the neutral decision-maker should the member be formally charged.

We discuss this recommended disciplinary approach in Managing Disciplinary Challenges in the Fire Service. Our next class is in Columbus, Ohio June 18-19, 2024, followed by Georgetown, Texas July 17-18, 2024, and Las Vegas, Nevada October 23-24, 2024. We also have our Advanced Disciplinary Challenges in the Fire Service in Foxborough, MA on August 19-20, 2024.

Here is a copy of the Springfield case.

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 45 years of fire service experience and 35 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, 4th ed. 2022) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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