Fire officials say it’s zero tolerance on misconduct Next course is ‘to ensure that a situation of this nature will not reoccur’

Published 12:00 am Saturday, December 1, 2012

SALISBURY — The Salisbury Fire Department will beef up its zero-tolerance policy and look to other agencies for guidance in the wake of the second sexual misconduct scandal in less than two years.
In early 2011 and again this week, Fire Chief Bob Parnell fired three employees and suspended one after allegations of sexual misconduct.
Parnell on Friday listed three components of his department’s response, which will begin Monday, including:
• Review actions and changes after the 2011 incident to determine if any were ineffective
• Review best practices based upon an analysis of similar conduct in other agencies
• Create a revised zero-tolerance policy that will dictate termination as the outcome for failing to comply with the department’s reporting procedure
The Fire Department will work with the city’s Human Resources Department during the next month “to develop a course of action to ensure that a situation of this nature will not reoccur,” Parnell said in a statement.
The information will be presented to the public, he said.
“The Salisbury Fire Department and the city of Salisbury consider violations of our policies and procedures very serious, as evidenced by our swift and thorough investigation and resulting action,” Parnell said.
Echoing language he used at the conclusion of the 2011 investigation, Parnell assured Salisbury residents “that at no point during the course of this incident was the fire protection of our community compromised.”
City Manager Doug Paris called Parnell a strong leader and said he remains confident in the fire chief.
Paris said he could not disclose details about the investigation, including how many incidents occurred, specifics about inappropriate relationships or conduct and details about photographs mentioned in the employees’ termination and disciplinary letters released by the city as required by state law.
“We take these matters very seriously,” Paris said.
Councilwoman Maggie Blackwell said her confidence in Parnell is unshaken.
Parnell, Paris and Zach Kyle, assistant city manager for human resources, “did an amazing job addressing it with haste and excised the situation with a sharp blade to show that we are serious about zero tolerance,” Blackwell said.
Blackwell said there was no connection between the two incidents. She described them as separate incidents involving different people.
One employee — Chet Hedrick — was involved in both incidents. He was suspended in 2011 and dismissed Wednesday.
“These are grown men and women exercising personal judgment for good or ill,” she said.
She acknowledged people are questioning the culture of the Fire Department.
“But I’m so pleased and proud that (staff) have hastened to ensure that the culture will be positive in the future,” Blackwell said.
Mayor Paul Woodson said the Fire Department has a lot of work to do, and City Council is looking forward to reviewing Parnell’s plan “to make sure this does not happen again.”
“They’re going to have to do some major follow-up and sure, after two incidents, I’m sure they are going to pay a lot more attention to it,” Woodson said. “If you have a problem, you have to attack it.”
Woodson said the Fire Department, the city’s second largest department, is an “outstanding organization” with many good firefighters and officers.
Like other city leaders, Woodson praised Paris and his staff for acting quickly and professionally.
“I’m happy with the way they handled it,” Woodson said. “They got it done and are showing that they mean business.”
The city was proactive with the second investigation, alerting the media within hours that the Fire Department was under investigation and providing personnel information that has been deemed a public record under state statute.
Termination and disciplinary letters generated as a result of the investigation met the letter and spirit of the public records law.
Paris would not comment on his administration’s handling of the investigation other than to say, “We will act in a professional manner that makes our citizens proud.”
Through the course of the investigation, the following disciplinary action was taken:
• Hedrick, fire control specialist II — terminated
• Tim Grisham, engineer — terminated
• Jeremi Carter, fire control specialist II — terminated
• Shawn McBride, captain demoted to engineer and suspended five 24-hour shifts without pay.
Parnell did not provide information Friday other than what was included in his statement. “Our department employs many outstanding and dedicated firefighters who have devoted their careers to upholding the longstanding tradition of the Salisbury Fire Department and honor daily our oath,” he said.
Part of the oath reads: “… I dedicate myself to reduce the risk of fire and hazards and to protect lives and property in Salisbury, North Carolina. As a Salisbury firefighter, I shall maintain honor and integrity with excellent physical, mental and emotional fitness and perform my duty to the best of my ability.”

Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.