Whistleblowers fear Seattle Fire Department is in trouble

Whistleblowers fear Seattle Fire Department is in trouble »Play Video
SEATTLE -- The Seattle Fire Department is in trouble. That's the fear of several whistleblowers who are turning to the Problem Solvers for help.

They believe lawsuits, equal employment complaints and even proven ethics violations have all failed to get the department's attention to fix serious problems that could leave the public at risk. And our investigation found the complaints lead to one person: Fire Chief Greg Dean.

Employees say that, while trouble is brewing within the department, the person at the top, Chief Dean, isn't listening.

"I honestly did not know what the hell was going on," says Paramedic Marina Shea.

The complaints range from workplace safety and ethics violations to concerns about equal treatment. Retired paramedic Karen Dong says, "I spoke up and I got slapped down."

At least four Seattle Fire employees brought serious, potentially dangerous issues to department leaders. All four believe their warnings hit a dead end at Chief Dean's door.

"I had a sense that this might be covered up," said Battalion Chief Jim Woodbury.

The Problem Solvers broke the story of an ethics investigation that found Seattle fire Lt. Milt Footer misused his position to get favors from event promoters and grossly wasted nearly $200,000 in taxpayer money. The investigation confirmed complaints that Chief Dean refused to discipline Footer. When asked who the orders about discipline came from, Battalion Chief Woodbury replied, "those came directly from Chief Dean."

After our story broke, then-Mayor Greg Nickels officially reprimanded Chief Dean, but Dean kept his job. But during the same time period, paramedics told KOMO News that Chief Dean was also ignoring complaints about a different firefighter -- this time a paramedic within Medic One. These complaints alleged harassment and workplace safety.

"It felt to me like anything was possible," said paramedic Shea, "and he would have the potential to harm anyone."

Paramedic Mitzi Simmons complained about the medic for months.

"He had no boundaries and that's what I kept telling the fire chief," she said. But Simmons says Chief Dean rejected every solution her boss offered. "And his response to me was 'Chief Dean doesn't want to antagonize the union during the mayor's election bid because he sees it as a thousand votes.'"

But when the medic challenged his superior officer on a medical run, Chief Dean finally agreed to put him on administrative leave pending a fitness for duty exam. The very next day, police were called to Medic One headquarters when the medic snapped.

Lt. Michael Barokas described the event during this subsequent civil Service hearing: "He would go from very loud and very confrontational to almost the point of where he was muttering things such as: 'You're all f---ing pathetic, you should be ashamed of yourselves, how dare you call yourself officers?' And then he'd raise his voice again, 'F--- you!' "

The medic declined to talk to us and we're not naming him as he's not been charged with any crime. But according to documents obtained by the Problem Solvers, several workers feared the medic had a gun. Lt. Barokas testified, "both of us had, I think a sense of fear for our personal safety."

The documents show that after the last confrontation, Chief Dean removed the man from the medic battalion for one year. But over the objections of his staff, Dean allowed the firefighter to keep his premium paramedic pay and let him automatically return to the medic battalion this summer.

"It's scary," says paramedic Shea, "what the hell is going to happen when he comes back?"

Retired paramedic Karen Dong says her 27 years with Seattle Fire are marred by two instances when she complained to the department's equal employment office and was shut down by Chief Dean, who had the final word on any complaints.

"I didn't have the courage to go any further," she said. "Chief Dean had scared me enough."

Dong's first report was about being transferred when she says the department didn't want three gay women working the same shift. The second involved a confrontation with former Lt. Milt Footer.

"But he was shaking that flashlight in my face - an inch from my nose and I was sure he was going to hit me, he was so angry and so animated."

Dong says she was warned that if she didn't drop her complaint she could be targeted for insubordination. In both cases, Dong says Chief Dean called the shots.

"Chief Dean, not just him personally but the type of personality he had, was 'it's my way or the highway and if you stand up I'm gonna slap you down.' "

Chief Dean would not talk to KOMO News about what our investigation found. But in an earlier interview, we asked him what his responsibility was for oversight of his employees.

"Our responsibility is to do our job correctly," Dean said, "and if we have someone that hasn't done their job correctly, we need to hold them responsible for that."

Mayor Mike McGinn also refused to talk to us about these problems within the fire department. But a spokesman in his office told us the Mayor still supports Chief Dean and has invited him to stay on as his fire chief.