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"Sheepish" is not a word you'd ever use to characterize Metro-Dade firefighter Douglas Jewett. During his nineteen years in the department, he has acquired a reputation as a topnotch firefighter and paramedic, but one who will step on anyone's toes to get the job done. This is a man who, while heading a small team of U.S. rescue workers during the 1985 earthquake-relief effort in Mexico, got into a shouting match with a general of the Mexican army about who was in charge of the entire international operation. (Jewett believed he was.) "Doug is a free spirit," says Mel F. Montes, deputy director of the Metro-Dade County Fire Department. "He's very motivated, has boundless energy, and he'll give you work like a maniac. But he's hard to control."
It was with this same independence and directness of purpose that Jewett spoke to New Times in September about carrying firearms on the job in violation of department rules. But those comments have launched him into a disciplinary-action procedure that may result in his first official punishment.
"I carry a gun mostly at night, when the place starts smelling a little weird, when the cops start running back and forth," Jewett told New Times in a story about a fire captain demoted two ranks for toting a deactivated derringer on the job. Jewett was one of several sources who confirmed that firearms were no strangers to the firehouse. For years, the sources said, firefighters wouldn't hesitate to show off their weapons for their colleagues; some even said they packed iron on rescue missions.
Interviewed at Station 2 in Liberty City, Jewett recalled how he once held a gun to a citizen's head during a rescue operation in the thick of the McDuffie riots of 1980. He even pulled his Colt .38 and leg holster from his truck, parked just outside the station, and displayed them. "Maybe I know I'm breaking the rules, but hell, rules have to be broken when danger comes up," the stocky maverick rumbled. "Rules can't be made while sitting in an office. I'd rather be tried by twelve than carried by six."
None too pleased with the firefighter's remarks, Jewett's superiors launched an inquiry. "Doug's comments were inflammatory because he leads people to think that there are many firefighters carrying firearms and that we intimidate people with them," explains Montes. "We don't want people to think they have to protect themselves against us because we'll arrest them or shoot them." When confronted with the New Times article, Montes says, Jewett claimed he had been misquoted and that his comments were taken out of context. (Jewett could not be reached for comment.) His boss, Chief Joseph Garcia, says that he will decide this week whether Jewett should be punished. Such discipline would likely be in the form of a letter of reprimand, which would serve as a warning to Jewett but wouldn't directly affect his pay or promotions.
Whatever the outcome, the inquiry furnishes yet another chapter in the high-profile, yet controversial, history of Douglas Jewett. During his career, the flamboyant 48-year-old firefighter has consistently received outstanding performance evaluations, and he was the primary person responsible for setting up Metro-Dade's Bureau for International Programs, which provides disaster relief and training for foreign countries under the auspices of the federal government. But his independent thinking and free-spiritedness has riled officials as high up as the U.S. State Department.
Such was the case during the 1985 relief effort after the devastating earthquake in Mexico City. Jewett was there with several other members of the Disaster Assistance Response Team, the disaster-relief division of the Bureau of International Programs. But after Jewett's run-in with the Mexican general, federal officials at the Agency for International Development (AID) pulled the team out of Mexico. Two days later the unit was redispatched without Jewett. "The second mission when we returned was to mend political fences," says Montes, who led that trip. "We did rescue work, but I spent most of the time with the general and his people."
During a rescue operation after an earthquake in El Salvador the following year, Jewett again irritated his bosses in Dade County and Washington, D.C. Not only was he insubordinate, but he carried a gun during the trip, says the mission commander, Chief Glenn Patton, who filed a complaint with the fire department against Jewett for insubordination, and told fire department and Dade County government officials about the gun. But despite the seriousness of the complaints and the rank of the officer who filed them, Jewett escaped without punishment. "No matter if my complaints were warranted, Doug had the political chips behind him to go unscathed," remarks Patton.
Indeed, Montes recalls, the State Department called off disciplinary proceedings because the rescue worker had cultivated a friendship with El Salvador President Jose Napoleon Duarte during the mission, and U.S. officials didn't want to make a fuss. "Doug was in trouble again, but it was the reverse: Instead of making enemies with the local leaders, he made friends with them," Montes says. "That kept him from getting into trouble."
Jewett's deviant antics during a 1988 trip to the White House were too much for AID officials, who finally dropped the firefighter from the very organization he had created. Even Montes and Fire Chief Gene Perry felt compelled to fly to Washington, D.C., on a diplomatic mission to settle tempers. The final straw occurred at a ceremony during which President Ronald Reagan commended members of the Disaster Assistance Response Team for their participation in the Armenian earthquake-relief effort. According to Montes, relief workers had been given "very specific instructions not to hand the president anything, not to make any comments to him, to just shake his hand and say thank you." But as Reagan approached Jewett in the receiving line, the firefighter suddenly reached into his pocket, pulled out a fire-department patch, and delivered a short speech as he handed the token to the president. "No one knew what was going on," says Montes, recalling the tense scene. "When Jewett reached into his pocket, the Secret Service, Julia Taft [an AID director], the whole world was ready to kill.