Firefighters getting cold shoulder

Dennis Kessler walked into a super­market wearing his old firefighter T-shirt from St. Paul, Minn., and drew a scornful glare from a woman.

She asked him if he was one of the sick leave abusers.

It didn’t matter that Kessler, a retired captain, worked on fire crews thousands of miles removed from the sick leave scandal engulfing Clark County firefighters.

His T-shirt tagged him as a firefighter, making him a target.

To Kessler, the woman’s derision was worse than a slap in the face. His 34 years of service felt stained.

"It broke my heart," Kessler recalled, choking back emotion. "It was very terrible to see that. I didn’t deserve it."

Allegations that some county firefighters abused sick leave have angered many residents who feel betrayed by an agency they had held in high regard.

As a result, firefighters who once were hailed as public guardians and warmly greeted wherever they went are often reviled. They say people sneer at them instead of smile. Flip them the middle finger instead of wave.

And some firefighters say they fear for their safety.

The FBI and the Metropolitan Police Department are sifting through documents, including more than a quarter-million e-mails, to determine whether firefighters committed actual crimes or simply broke county rules.

County leaders submitted a few dozen firefighters’ e-mails during contract arbitration to show that sick leave possibly was misused and that stricter rules were needed. They later released the names of the firefighters who sent the e-mails.

Officials have said repeatedly that at least some of the firefighters might have legitimate reasons for their questionable sick leave use, and that they’ll have a chance to explain.

But firefighters say they already have been condemned in the court of public opinion.

"The ones that are guilty, they’re putting a (bad) light on us," said Capt. Tom Smith, who is working to disprove allegations that he misused sick leave. "We’re not all abusers."

STALKED AND FLIPPED OFF

On a warm morning, Smith’s crew finished washing their vehicles at Station 16, off Nellis Boulevard.

A white van with tinted windows cruised through the parking lot and stopped near the front of the building.

"That’s the cleaning guy," one firefighter remarked.

He wasn’t referring to someone who could help them swab down a fire engine. On Valentine’s Day, the driver had dropped off a long, rambling, single-spaced letter titled "Hearing God’s Voice Clearly."

In a jumbled monologue, the man talks about newspaper reports, County Commissioner Steve Sisolak — who called for sick leave to be investigated — and God giving him a message to "attack" in a dream.

He describes violent imagery, such as rifles shooting and bullets flying.

And his missive ends with the declaration: "God showed me in this same dream. I got into my car and I had my cleaning supplies with me, and I was going to clean up."

Smith and others feared that "cleaning supplies" was a metaphor for guns or explosives.

They called the police.

The man was cited for two traffic violations, and his name was forwarded to Homeland Security’s counterterrorism division, where it will be kept on file in case he acts menacing again, a police spokesman said.

Firefighter Greg Lannet said the harassment has affected his personal life.

His car has a license plate identifying him as a firefighter. One person drove past his house shouting obscenities and frightening his wife.

"We had to put in an alarm system," Lannet said.

Lannet is suspected of misusing sick leave because of an e-mail he sent to his supervisor while in Alaska.

In the message, Lannet tells the battalion chief that if a co-worker can’t trade a shift with him, the chief should schedule him for vacation or sick leave.

Firefighters must use sick days for their or a family member’s medical problems, and not as a substitute for vacation. Otherwise, they violate the labor contract.

Lannet said the message got blown out of proportion. He never used a sick day for that Alaska trip, he said.

The hostility that he and his colleagues are enduring have nothing to do with who is guilty or innocent, only that they wear the firefighters’ uniform, he said.

"It’s been miserable. We get flipped off," he said, describing how drivers in traffic often give them the middle finger when they travel in a fire vehicle.

One captain who asked not to be named said firefighters who make grocery runs at a nearby store have come to expect dirty looks and nasty remarks from shoppers.

That’s in stark contrast to the days not so long ago when patrons would welcome them and children would run up to them excitedly, he said. Stores were a prime place to pass out fire-safety pamphlets and augment community relations.

Now a friendly word from a shopper is a rarity, he said.

GAMING THE SYSTEM

For years, there had been talk that some county firefighters were gaming the sick leave system.

In January, the rumblings erupted into an uproar after an arbitrator took note of possible sick leave abuse when choosing the county’s final contract offer over terms proposed by the firefighters.

Sick leave cost the county $7 million in 2009, partly because tight staffing often requires those who fill in for co-workers to be paid overtime.

County officials submitted a compelling report in arbitration.

It showed that more than 230 fire­fighters each missed at least a month’s worth of 24-hour shifts because of sick calls in 2009, and a dozen missed more than three months of work because of sick leave.

That’s more than a third of the department’s fire-rescue employees.

Sick leave and overtime have helped push some firefighters’ pay above $200,000 a year.

County firefighters average $180,000 yearly in wages and benefits, compared with $80,000 for county workers in the Service Employees International Union, the county’s largest union.

Battalion chiefs, who are supervisors with a union contract, average $280,000 a year in pay and benefits.

There also is a question of whether some firefighters improperly padded each other’s pensions through callback pay.

Most firefighters who fill in for an absent co-worker less than 12 hours after finishing a shift qualify for callback, in which a portion of that day’s earnings goes toward their pensions.

Smith thinks authorities should investigate and punish wrongdoers as quickly as possible. That way, firefighters who are innocent can do their jobs without a cloud hanging over them, he said.

Ryan Beaman, head of the local firefighters union, said he hopes that managers’ decision to reveal names won’t put anyone in peril.

It’s probably no different from the county disclosing the salaries of all its employees, Beaman said.

Smith disagreed, arguing that sick leave abuse is a hot button that can stir up the kooks.

"We don’t wear bulletproof vests," Smith said.

WHO IS TO BLAME?

County Commissioner Tom Collins, an avid labor supporter, argues that managers should have dealt with sick leave abuse internally years ago, rather than letting Commissioner Sisolak make "a full frontal assault" that tarnishes the whole department and the county.

Had managers handled the problem quietly, the headlines would be about the handful of real abusers getting fired or arrested, Collins said.

Instead, people are angry at all firefighters, even those who are honest, dedicated and barely miss work.

"Because of this publicity-seeking commissioner, the entire Fire Department has been unfairly criticized," Collins said. "(It) has created a bad feeling in the community."

Sisolak, however, contends that taxpayers have a right to know about scams that involve public money.

"To think you should lock the door and do it in a smoke-filled backroom is ridiculous," Sisolak said. "If it hadn’t gotten this level of exposure, it would’ve stayed the same."

The hard fact is that wrongdoers can taint an entire public body, he said. As a commissioner, Sisolak said he still must contend with the lingering pall of three commissioners who went to federal prison on bribery charges years ago.

He said that after the abusers are punished, he will work with firefighters to restore their reputations and the public’s trust.

Sisolak said he knows how it feels to be reviled, having received death threats for bashing firefighters’ compensation.

Rory Reid, a former commissioner, said county firefighters shouldn’t be cast neatly as victims.

Last year, they waged a campaign to harass him when he was running for governor, he said.

Union leaders were rankled about managers disbanding heavy rescue and hazardous material teams and went after him, even though he had nothing to do with the decision, Reid said.

Firefighters followed him around with mobile billboards that proclaimed he was bad for public safety, Reid said. One evening, the billboard van was parked across the street from a friend’s house where he was hosting a small campaign gathering.

"I always thought it was heavy-handed," Reid said. "I’m proud I wasn’t intimidated by it."

NOT SO SICK ANYMORE

In January, when the potential abuse was making the news, firefighters called in sick much less than a year before.

Compared to January 2010, the use of sick leave dropped by 46 percent across the department, 83 percent in McCarran International Airport’s fire crews and 63 percent in Laughlin.

Lannet said he won’t call in sick anymore, even when he has a bug that he might pass to co-workers, or when his pregnant wife needs medical attention.

Smith argued that firefighters need more sick time than the average worker. They often are exposed to contagious diseases during emergency medical calls, and their bodies get worn down by the long hours and the stress, he said.

But Kessler, the retired firefighter, said he seldom called in sick during his 34 years in Minnesota.

The job is stressful, and some people can handle it better than others, he said. Still, none of that excuses some fire­fighters’ misconduct, Kessler said.

"That is absolute theft from the public. They conspired to steal."

Kessler said he hasn’t worn his firefighter T-shirt since encountering the brusque woman in the store.

GROCERY RUN

On Friday, firefighters Lannet and Faruk Williams made the daily grocery run for the station.

They drove the firetruck to a nearby Smith’s, and then stood in the parking lot for a moment to brace themselves.

"Let’s do this," Lannet said to Williams, as if preparing to enter a burning building.

They bought meat, bread, produce and other assorted items.

None of the shoppers seemed to notice them.

Plucking potato chips from a shelf, Lannet said the animosity is the worst after a spate of bad publicity. Today, the tsunami that battered Japan is grabbing everyone’s attention, he said.

He noted that it has been at least a week since anyone has acted hostile toward him. He looked grateful for the reprieve.

He and Williams paid for the groceries and walked out, finishing what turned out to be an uneventful shopping trip.

"That’s what I hope for," Williams said.

Contact reporter Scott Wyland at swyland@reviewjournal.com or 702-455-4519.

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