Houston's acting fire chief has fired three firefighters, saying they were each culpable in an incident where a racial epithet was entered on an EMS report using an ambulance computer terminal.
The head of the firefighters union called the firings a "travesty“ and said the department failed to determine who actually was responsible.
A spokesman for Acting Fire Chief Rick Flanagan confirmed on Wednesday the disciplinary actions were ordered, after union officials protested the fairness of the dismissals.
HFD identified the three involved in a March 7 incident as firefighter Spencer Allred, 33, firefighter Randal Ricks, 33, and engineer/operator Ryan J. Smith, 27, all from Station 55 in south Houston at Cullen and Selinsky.
Smith declined comment Wednesday evening. Calls to Allred and Ricks were not returned.
Probe vilified, defended
Jeff Caynon, president of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association Local 341, criticized Flanagan's actions and insisted the department fired the three because officials could not determine who actually committed the infraction.
Caynon also said that the infraction was "despicable."
City attorney Dave Feldman defended the thoroughness of the investigation and said it was conducted by the city's inspector general.
"I did review the investigation. It was thorough, and the disciplinary response of the acting fire chief was clearly appropriate in light of the information gleaned during the course of the investigation," Feldman said. "The evidence developed in the investigation certainly showed that each of these individuals was culpable."
The incident was discovered during an audit of EMS reports this year. The electronic report of a patient transported in an HFD ambulance had been altered to include the racial slur, Caynon said.
Other troubling incidents
The firings were the latest example of a pattern of unproven racial and sexual allegations made against Houston firefighters, the union official said.
"I'm upset at what I see as a pattern of behavior — that allegations are made against Houston firefighters, a sloppy investigation gets conducted, and there is a rush to discipline members of my organization," Caynon said. "Later on, when the facts are revealed, they are ignored."
Earlier this year an investigation was launched after a rope resembling a hangman's noose was found in a fire captain's locker, who later apologized but explained it was a knot-tying exercise he had kept from his days as a trainee. He was given a minor reprimand. Local NAACP officials concluded the HFD employee had been wrongly accused and had no racist intent.
In July 2009, the lockers of two female firefighters were scrawled with racial and sexual slurs at station 54 at George Bush International Airport. A city investigation was not able to identify who produced the graffiti. In January, Fire Chief Phil Boriskie resigned after he was admonished by Mayor Annise Parker for his handling of a "team-building" session gone awry when one of the women returned to work.
"Here we are again," Caynon said. "... The department has done a shoddy investigation, and when they couldn't determine who did it, the solution was fire everyone who might have done it. Even if one of them did it, they are firing two of them without regard for their families. It's not only illegal, but it's also immoral."
According to HFD, one firefighter received an indefinite suspension, and two others were offered 60-day suspensions in lieu of firings but declined. All three have chosen to appeal their firings, HFD confirmed.
HFD spokeman Patrick Trahan said two of the firefighters were terminated Tuesday, and the other last Thursday.
The mayor's office declined to comment on the firings.