Caution: Flammable Substance

A county firefighter lights a fuse by accusing his superiors of racially tinged arrogance

The protest in front of Station 2 has caused some firefighters to grow nervous. "There is tension there," says J.R. "Pepe" Fernandez, the fire department's human resources coordinator. "Gimenez says when they are picketing out there, it's a safety issue."

Indeed Fernandez reports that one Station 2 officer asked him what could be done to stop Davis and the PFA from assembling out front. "And I said, ďLook, which of her constitutional rights do you want me to abrogate? We can't tell her not to do that.'"

Neither Gimenez nor Machado showed up at the Joseph Caleb Center on Wednesday, March 6, for a hearing convened to solicit public comment on the preliminary IRP report. But Latimore was there, and he told about 50 people present -- most of them firefighters and department officers -- how a routine day on the job this past May turned explosive after he, Machado, and others responded to a call at a neighborhood convenience store just blocks from the station.

Veteran firefighter Willie Latimore won't budge, even if he gets burned in the process
Steve Satterwhite
Veteran firefighter Willie Latimore won't budge, even if he gets burned in the process

On the scene, Latimore related, he and Machado found an elderly man who may have been having a diabetic seizure. The man was uncooperative, Latimore recalled, and became more so as Machado continued to question him. Latimore, a licensed practical nurse before becoming a firefighter, said he suggested to Machado that they hold off on further questioning until the arrival of a backup emergency unit, which would have a stretcher in case the man had to be restrained.

Machado reacted angrily to his suggestion, Latimore recounted, and ordered him to leave the scene. "I refused," Latimore says. "I stood there. The rescue truck came, the police came, and they took the man away."

Back at Station 2 Latimore was relieved of duty, sent home on administrative leave, and issued a reprimand for insubordination. Gimenez later asked the division chief to transfer Latimore off of B shift on the grounds that the other firefighters had lost confidence he could be trusted in life-and-death situations.

Latimore, a veteran firefighter who had never before been reprimanded, felt that was a watershed moment in a distinguished career. He knew his Station 2 job was in jeopardy but, he says, "I also thought that it was time for someone to have a look at what was going on. These officers were on a power trip, mistreating people for years. And they got away with it."

Phillips first met with Latimore and the men of B shift this past summer, when he was deputy chief. He says he ordered Latimore to report to C shift. "I moved Latimore for his safety," Phillips says. "I feared that someone would get hurt."

But before ever reporting to C shift, Latimore voluntarily moved to a training battalion. "I didn't want my problems to become a problem for C shift and everyone else," he explains.

Last Thursday, March 7, Phillips met again with the firefighters at Station 2 and ordered Latimore to return to B shift, saying a union mediation committee found no safety issues in his working there. Latimore repeats that is only half of what he wants; he also wants Machado and Gimenez removed from Station 2. "They are just like rogue cops," he charges. "They abuse their powers."

Lt. Faye Davis of the PFA says the group will continue to support Latimore with picketing of Station 2 and department headquarters if necessary. "I don't think racism is a big problem within the department in general," says Davis, "but the situation at Station 2 has been simmering for a while and the chief knows that. And if we continue to look the other way when these things come up, then we'll have big problems."

A final report on allegations of fire department hazing and the Latimore incident is to be presented to the full nine-member IRP at a 2:00 p.m. meeting on March 21 at IRP headquarters, 140 W. Flagler St. The report will include recommendations, but the panel has no authority to compel charges.

For Latimore, what began with sparks between him and his supervisors has grown into a career-threatening blaze. His wife Rolande has told him she is afraid he might get hurt if he goes back to work at Station 2. His 28-year-old daughter Nicky, a fire department lieutenant, is also worried but supports his stand, he says.

Latimore will remain assigned to the training battalion while taking classes to become a fire inspector, but he insists that Machado and Gimenez must go before he returns to Station 2. "Those guys shouldn't be in the community because they don't respect the community," he declares. Neither, he adds, do they respect him. "At first I thought if it came to me going into a burning building to pull one of them out, I'd gladly do it," he says. "But as time went on I realized they would not do the same for me."

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