published: Saturday, February 16, 2013
Complaints against fire department unfounded
By SAMANTHA GHOLAR
SEBRING - Investigations were recently conducted and have been concluded into two Sebring Fire Department issues.
City Administrator Scott Noethlich shared letters regarding the two incidents and investigations that shed light onto what has been allegedly going on at the city's fire department.
A racial discrimination investigation was headed by Mayor George Hensley, City Attorney Bob Swaine and City Human Resources Manager Charlotte Mann.
According to a letter written by Hensley to Noethlich following the wrap up of the investigation, the complaint "was deemed unfounded."
Firefighter David Avila was the center of the investigation. Avila contacted city officials on Jan. 11 via mail.
In his letter Avila stated, "I have been a loyal and respectful member of the Sebring Fire Department for several years now. I don't like being the one who first speaks up about this but I feel like it has impacted my life ... Chief (Brad) Batz has made me feel like an unequal member of this department through his racial actions."
Avila went on to describe details of the things that he has witnessed in the department that he feels were discrimination and or racist.
Avila described an instance when Batz walked "through the floor I just mopped and looks down at me without saying a word." The letter also stated that Batz ,at one time, kept a noose in his office.
The presence of a noose was confirmed by many firefighters when questioned by Hensley. The object had been in and out of the firehouse over a two-year time frame due to the moving of offices and a temporary trailer, according to the investigation report.
Avila stated on Feb. 4, 2013 that the noose was in a "closet" in Batz' office. The object, which was tied in a standard training rope manner on the wall, according to the SFD employees, was not found by Hensley when he searched Batz's office. Hensley found no traces of a rope of any type during his investigation. Firefighters stated that Batz had not displayed the object in a "racially motivated way or otherwise made a racial comment or gesture to it."
According to Hensley and Noethlich's report, Avila told city officials that he did not find offense in the presence of a noose initially, but he became offended when a colleague told him what the object meant.
The investigation continued with digging into comments being allegedly made towards Avila by not only Batz but fellow firefighters. Hensley report stated that Avila was not taking the comments too seriously but that firefighters may be "racially insensitive, but believes Chief Batz is nonetheless wrong for allowing it to happen."
Firefighters agreed that joking and poking fun at one another on duty is a common occurrence and that Avila is usually "joking right along with the others."
After further investigation, speaking individually with other firefighters and follow-up interviews with Avila, the city's position remained that Avila's allegations of racial discrimination are unfounded. Hensley stressed to Noethlich that the city would not tolerate any racial discrimination.
As a result of the investigation, the Sebring Fire Department will undergo educational courses on diversity training in an attempt to ensure the discrimination policy is upheld. The classes are currently being scheduled by Mann.
Noethlich spoke about the investigation and what steps the city is taking next.
"I think there have been some misperceptions. Once you look at things with a certain pair of glasses on they are going to look different," Noethlich said. "As for Avila I don't know, I can't really say how he is doing. I don't have a good read as the whether he is okay or not at the fire department, but I believe that he doesn't really want to speak up anymore about any of this."
Local Union Chapter 3210 President Ross Edmunds spoke about the situation stating that Avila had plenty he wanted to talk about.
"He (Avila) does want to talk, they (city) are trying to make things seem differently than they really are. I know he wants to talk, he's afraid ... There's something going on here and the city just swept it right under the rug," Edmunds said. "If this was a serious investigation why wouldn't you question everybody on the department? They went out of their way to make this look like a perfect investigation and do a good job but in reality everybody in the department is looking around like what in the world is going on?"
Edmunds stated that the noose incident was a big enough incident that someone took down the noose. Edmunds also stated that Avila will no longer go into Batz' office. The union followed Avila's racial discrimination claim with a hostile working environment claim, which was also deemed unfounded. Though Edmunds could not speak of the other details surrounding the investigation (he was not questioned) he knows of other instances where the work environment has had racial discrimination undertones.
"I hope somebody out there cares enough about this community to stand up for what's right no matter what the timeline of these things happening are," Ross said. "Being a firefighter is an amazing job; it's sad that it's been turned into something so stressful and difficult."
A classmate (by: Brooke - 2/20/2013)
I went to EMT school with Mr. Avila and so I spent a lot of time with him for about 5 months. He was a friendly, hard working person and was well-respected by all of his classmates. If David felt compelled to write a complaint about racism in the department then I have no doubt that it is true. I base this on my knowledge of Mr. Avila as a person and my experiences with both Polk and Highlands EMS personnel. I would be interested to see if the EEOC would concur with the findings of this internal "investigation". I don't hold much hope that his courage to speak will not negatively effect his career. It's a shame that a good man can't just work in peace.
Jerks (by: J Doe - 2/20/2013)
Disgruntled seems to be an adequate adjective to use. Might even throw in petty, vindictive, jealous, & spiteful.
Transcripts (by: 8RRZM - 2/19/2013)
This should be covered under the firefighters bill of rights, so let us see the transcripts. This will allow us to make our own decisions as to the matter.
hey blindman (by: the one who left that mess - 2/18/2013)
Boy you sure sound like the boss using words like "disgruntled" cause you continually called me that while I was employed there. And the only thing threatening the moral of the department is one high up white shirt. So Mr blind man get your stuff together and don't speak unless you have or will be involved.
Down here? (by: bAdLeY - 2/18/2013)
Funny how someone from somewhere else refers to our community as "down here" and in such a negative way, then pretends to speak for the same. Now that would be embarrassing!
Hmmmm (by: Joe Cool - 2/18/2013)
The investigation findings are public record correct? Mr Avilia & Mr Edmonds hate to break it to you but it seems like your colleagues don't want to play your vindictive games anymore....well except for the colleague mentioned in the article who Mr Avilia states "told him what it meant" even though initially he "found no offense in the presence of a noose". The article states many firefighters were interviewed. If you weren't one of the ones interviewed Mr Edmonds it would stand to reason that quite possibly your fellow firefighters pointed the finger at you.
Wow (by: Embarrassed citizen - 2/18/2013)
Guys, please read into this far enough to realize the allegations have been explorered by a kangaroo court at best. It is obvious the claims are being swept under the rug. This is blatent racism and cronyism. Subtle racism has always been a part of this city's history and while it is as much if not more hurtful than obvious racism, it should not be realized as a "way of life" down here in attempts to cover up a noose in a chief's office.
Mr Edmonds (by: For you - 2/17/2013)
If you don't hear it with your own ears or see it with your own eyes don't invent it with your small mind and share it with your big mouth.
Who is racist? (by: Blindman - 2/16/2013)
There appears to be one person in this continuous saga who is racist and that's Mr. Avila. If he is not comfortable around the firehouse, if he resents his boss or not being spoken to at all times, he has a moral/IC problem that most likely stems from his own racism. This sort of thing can spread from one disgruntled employee to another, threatening the moral of the whole department. Our good mayor is only employing a CYA technique by recommending diversity training for department employees so as not to appear insensitive to Mr. Avila's personal dilemma. I'm starting to wonder if I would even want this guy to show up at my house if I needed him. Man, Get A Grip!
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