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Friday, September 19, 2014
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Published: Friday, 3/15/2013 - Updated: 1 year ago

TOLEDO

Station 5 firefighters face arrests, accusations

Suspensions issued; inquiry under way

BY NOLAN ROSENKRANS AND TAYLOR DUNGJEN
BLADE STAFF WRITERS

Editor's Note: This version has been updated to reflect the name of the prosecutor.

Toledo Fire Chief Luis Santiago said he doesn't know if a station culture at Station 5, 1 N. Ontario St., has led to the station's woes. Toledo Fire Chief Luis Santiago said he doesn't know if a station culture at Station 5, 1 N. Ontario St., has led to the station's woes.
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Accusations of bad behavior by firefighters working out of the downtown Toledo station have left two of them suspended for allegedly using a life squad as a party bus, two others under investigation for allegations of drunken driving, and a city attorney suspended for the way he handled one of the drunken-driving cases.

The Toledo Fire Department suspended two firefighters in late February over accusations that they used the life squad on Jan. 19 to ferry three nurses to and from downtown’s Station 5 and a Christmas party at the Blarney Irish Pub. The firefighters were on duty, and let the women pose for pictures in fire trucks. A nurse at one point slid down the station’s fire pole, Fire Chief Luis Santiago said.

Joseph Zuber, who is assigned to Station 5, was suspended for 16 hours for conduct unbecoming of a firefighter and for transporting a civilian in an emergency vehicle without permission. Brandon Walton, who is assigned to Station 9 but was filling in at Station 5 that night, was suspended for eight hours for the transportation charge.

“Transporting civilians to and from a bar is unacceptable,” a departmental document reads. “Your conduct was far below the standard expected of a Toledo firefighter and has caused great embarrassment to the department.”

Both Mr. Zuber and Mr. Walton saw their suspensions reduced by the department from 48 hours and 24 hours respectively, though their full suspensions could be enacted for the next year under their agreements. Chief Santiago said he reduced the suspensions because the two men took responsibility for their actions, were upfront about what happened, and have no prior discipline record.

Neither Mr. Zuber nor Mr. Walton could be reached for comment.

The incident occurred shortly after two other members of Station 5 were charged separately with driving drunk.

In one incident, Todd Steele, a 17-year firefighter with the city, was eastbound on Sylvania Avenue Jan. 14 when he lost control at Phillips Avenue, struck a flagpole, a stone monument, a fire hydrant, and a traffic-control box, authorities said.

But a city prosecutor dismissed the drunken-driving charge, and Mr. Steele pleaded guilty Tuesday to reckless operation and was ordered to pay a $50 fine and court costs.

City Law Director Adam Loukx said Thursday he issued a five-day suspension without pay for the prosecutor assigned to the case. Mr. Loukx said he suspended the prosecutor because he did not exercise sufficient diligence, given the seriousness of the allegations.

“I think this could have been handled better,” he said.

The prosecutor on the case was Scott Kunzler.

Mr. Loukx said he had no reason to believe that favoritism — or the fact the defendant is a city employee — played a role.

“If I had reason to believe that, I would fire somebody,” he said. “That wouldn’t be tolerated at all.”

The fire department’s internal investigation, which was awaiting the outcome of Mr. Steele’s criminal case, is now under way. Chief Santiago said he would not comment on the specifics of that investigation until it was complete.

Meanwhile, another member of shift B at Station 5 faces criminal charges for a Dec. 30 hit-skip traffic crash on West Sylvania Avenue near Douglas Road.

Paul Heiss, a 10-year veteran of the department, is charged with numerous traffic offenses, including driving while intoxicated and failure to stop after an accident. According to a police report, he is accused of rear-ending one vehicle Dec. 30 and then backing into another before fleeing the scene.

Neither Mr. Heiss nor Mr. Steele has been placed on administrative leave while the department investigates their cases, Chief Santiago said.

Firefighters’ Local 92, the union that represents Toledo firefighters, has filed grievances on the suspensions of Mr. Zuber and Mr. Walton, arguing the pair weren’t represented by a union member during the investigation, suspensions were held without a hearing, the two were told that no deal would be made if they were represented by the union, and that the “discipline imposed was severe.”

In his response, Chief Santiago denied the grievance, and wrote that the firefighters asked to meet with him, understood and declined in writing their right to be represented by their union, and that no statements were made that no deal in the case would be made if the union were involved.

On Thursday, the chief spoke highly of the past performance of the firefighters suspended in the Blarney incident, and said there was no indication either of them were drinking while on duty that night.

The two were never out of service, and could have responded to an emergency call at any time, he said. Both now realize they had a lapse of judgement, Chief Santiago said.

He called the punishments handed down "generous, but deserved."

Chief Santiago said it was important the public retains its trust in the fire department. Grievances by the union have spiked under his tenure, he said, because of philosophical differences about how he handles discipline.

“The reputation and good name of our department is important to me,” he said. “On my watch, it’s not going to erode.”

When asked if the recent string of incidents stemming from Station 5 were indicative of a station culture, Chief Santiago said he wasn’t prepared to answer without the results of the investigations into Mr. Heiss and Mr. Steele.

“We will peel back the layers of this onion to see if it is systemic,” he said. “I’m not in a position to conclude it’s a culture there yet.”

Union leaders did not respond to requests for comment on Thursday.

Contact Nolan Rosenkrans at: nrosenkrans@theblade.com or 419-724-6086, or on Twitter @NolanRosenkrans.



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