Buffalo Arson Reveals Troubles inside Rural Metro Workplace

Some employees apparently tried to tell management and came away dissatisfied.


 
 

DAN HERBECK and MATTHEW SPINA, Buffalo News | | Tuesday, January 17, 2012


Rural/Metro's top people in Western New York say they encourage employees to report wrongdoing to company managers -- not newspaper reporters.

But a Rural/Metro employee remembers an episode from 2009, when those on the front lines reported to managers possible criminal wrongdoing -- arson -- by two emergency medical technicians within their ranks.

Then they heard only silence from above.

Company managers say they promptly investigated but didn't feel they had to tell their tipsters that the internal inquiry had stalled when the targets denied wrongdoing.

"We investigated this thoroughly," said John M. Rusinski, the company's risk manager, who also is a volunteer firefighter in West Seneca and who recently joined the Town Board. "It was a he-said, she-said. We did our due diligence," he insisted.

Rusinski said he called the Buffalo Fire Department on May 18, 2009, to make officials there aware of the suspicions and his inconclusive findings.

But by that date, the Buffalo Fire Marshal's Office already had begun its own investigation after receiving a tip about the Rural/Metro EMTs from another Rural/Metro ambulance worker, according to the man who headed the office at the time, now-retired Lt. Salvatore Colangelo.

Colangelo said he doesn't recall any Rural/Metro manager contacting the department.

"No one from Rural/Metro management ever gave us a call as far as I can remember," Colangelo recently told The Buffalo News during the latest of three interviews on the subject.

Colangelo said he wishes Rural/Metro managers had alerted fire marshals immediately after receiving the allegations, rather than conducting their own inquiry first.

The News called Colangelo as it examined the assertions of current and former Rural/Metro employees speaking out about the company in Western New York.

Rural/Metro's top officials dismiss those employees' assertions as baseless complaints from disgruntled workers, who, they said, should report suspected wrongdoing to managers, not reporters.

But in the matter of the two suspected arsonists, some employees apparently tried that and came away dissatisfied.

Colangelo emphatically recalls that the tip about the Rural/Metro EMTs involved in arson came not from management but from an ambulance worker frustrated that -- in his view -- managers had not acted on the suspicions.

"An employee from Rural/Metro contacted one of our investigators and told them of their concerns about [two employees starting fires]," Colangelo said. "The employee was concerned that if something was not done to stop it, firefighters could be injured or killed at one of these fires."

Deputy Fire Commissioner Joseph J. Tomizzi, who now oversees the Fire Marshal's Office, declined to comment on the Rural/Metro case because he did not work in the office at the time.

However, a second source who was close to the investigation, a current law enforcement official who spoke to The News on condition of anonymity, called Colangelo's recollection accurate.

" 'I think there are two of our guys who are doing these fires,' " the law enforcement official quoted the Rural/Metro worker as saying. " 'We told our management. They don't want to hear it.' "

The employee was one of a few Rural/Metro workers eager to tell fire investigators what they knew about the threat to public safety and to the firefighters who were called to douse flames in the derelict structures being torched.

Rural/Metro workers suspected EMTs Jonathan R. Safe and Lyndsey Sgro, crew members on a Rural/Metro ambulance. Both were eventually arrested and convicted of arson crimes. Among the clues that made co-workers suspicious: text messages from one or both hinting at their involvement in fires -- while on duty.

To further complicate matters, Sgro was living with a Rural/Metro supervisor, Michael Arquette. He posted her bail, and the court records indicate they shared the same Cheektowaga address.

Rural/Metro management did cooperate with the fire marshals' probe, said Colangelo and the current law enforcement official who was close to the case.

But did the company drag its feet at first?

There had been a rash of fires in vacant buildings in the months leading up to May 2009. Fire marshals, after their probe, suspected Safe and Sgro could have been involved in more arsons than the two in which they were charged, Colangelo and the law enforcement official said.

An EMT told The News that Rural/Metro managers had reason to begin their inquiry much earlier than they did, in May 2009. He recalled that the first suspicions were brought to lower-level supervisory personnel in February or March of that year.

"We tried everything to do it in-house and deal with it, and nothing was done," said the EMT, who asked to remain unidentified in this article to avoid retaliation from superiors. "So we finally decided that we had to go to the authorities."

Rusinski, however, says something was done. He said it took the company just six days to investigate: from May 12, 2009 -- the date of a fire reported by Sgro and Safe -- to May 18, when Rusinski said he provided his findings to the Fire Department.

"We requested and received 11 narrative reports and personally interviewed nine individuals regarding this alleged incident," Rusinski wrote in his summary at the time.

" Both crew members adamantly deny any involvement in the fire," he continued. "The crew that brought the allegation forward stands by their assertion. Based on the aforesaid, the investigation is considered unsubstantiated."

Other than a copy of the one-paragraph summary, Rural/Metro management declined to provide any other documentation to The News about their inquiry. They also won't say whom they contacted at the Buffalo Fire Department.

On June 26 of that year, fire marshals and agents with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives arrested Safe, then 20, of Iris Avenue, and Sgro, 21, of Edgebrook Estates, Cheektowaga.

They were charged with arson, reckless endangerment, criminal mischief and burglary. Fire marshals that day also executed a search warrant in Rural/Metro's offices on William L. Gaiter Parkway, where they seized two computers.

"We were surprised when other authorities came to our offices," said Jay Smith, who was Rural/Metro's local spokesman at the time and now holds the title of general manager for the Western New York division. " Because we had been cooperating and, we think, forthcoming with the information."

Sgro, who was pregnant at the time of her sentencing, was put on probation for five years after pleading guilty to felony attempted arson.

Safe, who was a volunteer with the Vigilant Fire Department in West Seneca, admitted to starting a fire that caused $9,000 damage to a vacant, seven-story apartment house on Glenny Drive, near Erie County Medical Center, on May 3, 2009.

He also admitted starting a fire that caused $45,000 damage to a vacant house on Howard Street nine days after the Glenny Drive fire -- May 12, 2009, the day Rural/Metro began its inquiry. Safe began serving one to three years in state prison in February 2010.

Sgro isn't talking about how her crime was uncovered, if she knows. She would not talk to a reporter about her arrest.

But to Jonathan Safe, Rural/Metro's internal inquiry does not register as a factor in his arrest.

"How were you discovered?" he was asked during his first parole hearing in November 2010.

"I have no idea. They picked us up one day after work and brought us downtown," he answered.

Colangelo said he knows little about Rural/Metro's internal probe.

"I don't know what the time frame was on their internal investigation," Colangelo said of Rural/Metro's managers. "But I would have preferred that they had contacted us right away after getting this information. Obviously, their internal investigation was flawed, because it didn't amount to anything."



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