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Health department investigates SKFR firefighter after candidate files complaint
South King Fire and Rescue (SKFR) will retain legal counsel for a firefighter who is under investigation by the state Department of Health.
Firefighter Brandon Church — who is the son of Fire Chief Al Church — was disciplined by SKFR in 2012 after sending a Facebook message with “sexual innuendo” to a woman he treated during an emergency response earlier that day, according to documents. The content of that message has not been disclosed.
SKFR disciplined Church and charged him with professional misconduct. Until recently, the case appeared closed.
The investigation stems from a complaint filed in July with the health department by Jerry Galland, a candidate for SKFR’s board of commissioners in the general election. Galland said SKFR failed to notify the health department of Church’s misconduct as required by the Washington Administrative Code’s (WAC) mandatory reporting laws.
On Aug. 6, the board of commissioners voted 4-1 to retain law firm Patterson, Buchanan, Fobes and Leitch “to represent Brandon Church in his official capacity as a district firefighter in the pending Department of Health investigation.”
SKFR will pay for the legal representation, although no specific dollar amount has been revealed or allotted.
Commissioner Mark Freitas was the dissenting vote. Freitas said firefighters should be personally responsible for defending their own emergency medical technician (EMT) licenses, which are required as a condition of employment, just like a driver’s license.
“I don’t think the public should be paying for that,” Freitas told The Mirror. “I didn’t think it was a wise use of taxpayer dollars.”
The investigation could take up to six months. Assistant Fire Chief Ed Plumlee, who is Church’s supervisor, said SKFR’s progressive discipline procedures have effectively improved Church’s behavior and therefore render the investigation unnecessary.
As part of his discipline, Church was suspended for a shift without pay. He also completed the terms of his disciplinary probation, which included extensive study of SKFR’s bylaws and monthly evaluations.
“I think it will validate the department’s actions,” Plumlee said of the investigation. “If the Department of Health thought it was a serious offense, they would have pulled (Church) off the job.”
Ryan Herrera, president of IAFF Local 2024, said the union is looking at bringing in its labor attorney to work jointly with SKFR’s attorney.
“We believe we dealt with the matter locally and appropriately,” Herrera said. “We took it very seriously.”
Board chairman Bill Gates said this is the first Department of Health investigation of a firefighter during the fire chief’s 37 years on the job.
In addition to the discipline for misconduct in 2012, Brandon Church was reprimanded in 2009 for lying to a supervisor and cheating on an exam, and was reprimanded twice in 2010 for lying and insubordination.
Gates said that even if Church were not the fire chief’s son, he would still be employed despite past discipline.
“Brandon Church did not receive special treatment in no way, shape or form,” Gates told The Mirror, regarding the most recent disciplinary action. “We believe everything was done right by the books and so forth. … The matter was handled swiftly and promptly.”
SKFR has no specific policy related to nepotism, which is defined as favoritism on the job based on kinship. According to Gates and Plumlee, Chief Al Church has never supervised his son.
“Al is so far up the chain of command that Brandon is never going to end up working for Al,” Gates said. “Al will be long retired before Brandon even becomes assistant chief. … Al is simply not in the loop for discipline of Brandon.”
Plumlee said there are two other father-son pairs of employees in SKFR. As per district policy, he said, the fathers have no direct supervision over their sons.
According to the Municipal Research and Services Center of Washington, state law does not address nepotism, but a number of municipalities address rules for employment of “immediate family” in some degree.
For the 2013 election, there is one contested race for South King Fire and Rescue board of commissioners.
Longtime incumbent Bill Gates will seek re-election to position 1 against challenger Jerry Galland, a resident of unincorporated King County and an outspoken critic of the fire district.
Gates was first elected in 2001 and re-elected in 2007. He has served as board chairman the past four years.
In 2011, Galland ran for the board of commissioners against James Fossos and lost. Galland regularly attends board meetings. He started a blog (southkingfire.net) to criticize fire district procedures and finances.
The general election is Nov. 5.