Caution: Flammable Substance

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

For a firefighter who craves action, there is no better assignment than Station 2. The firehouse at 6460 NW 27th Ave. in the heart of Liberty City is not only the busiest in Miami-Dade County, but it is believed to be one of the busiest in the nation. During an average 24-hour shift, the bell goes off at Station 2 more than fifteen times, and every alarm is a call to the unknown. It could be an elderly slip-and-fall or a raging inferno.

For twelve of his seventeen years as a Miami-Dade firefighter, Willie Latimore has worked out of Station 2 and he feels honored to do so. As one of the few African Americans in the house, he takes personal pleasure in serving the predominantly black community in which he grew up. He knows he's a role model for neighborhood youngsters too. "Coming up, I don't remember seeing any black firefighters," he says.

But Latimore also shares his colleagues' professional pride in being a member of an elite team recognized as the best: technically solid, fast and efficient, and brave. Within the department, everyone knew that the so-called house in the 'hood was where you learned your trade. Latimore, like all firefighters who earned an assignment to Station 2, felt special.

All of that began going bad last spring, however, about eighteen months after Latimore transferred from C shift to B shift in order to land an assignment driving the fire truck. (Firefighters generally work 24 hours followed by 48 hours off, necessitating three shifts for full-time coverage.) Although he knew the men he would be serving under on B shift -- Lts. Carlos Gimenez and Angel Machado -- Latimore says he did not know about the pair's management style. He claims he discovered a prank-filled, frat-house atmosphere at the station and an arrogance on the street allegedly fueled by racism. "I just refused to go along the way they expected," says 48-year-old Latimore. That stubborn refusal led to his being disciplined for insubordination. Today he is on temporary assignment to a training battalion.

The conflict between Latimore and his superiors has touched off a firestorm that has rocked the Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Department, uncovering racial tensions and a disturbing pattern of harassment and hazing that an investigation by the county's Independent Review Panel (IRP) found is part of the culture at Station 2.

Because of Station 2's reputation, firefighters assigned there project an "air of superiority [that] is sometimes detrimental to effective communications with some employees and members of the predominantly black neighborhood," IRP executive director Eduardo I. Diaz wrote in a preliminary report in response to a complaint by Latimore and People United to Lead the Struggle for Equality. In interviews with 24 firefighters and supervisors who work at Station 2, IRP staffers heard stories of white firefighters being cursed or targeted with bottles while out on calls. "One firefighter spoke of unsettling gunplay and putdowns by community members," reads the report.

Inside Station 2, the report continues, "B shift has the reputation for being “cliquish.' If you are motivated, work hard, and behave according to “expectations,' you will “fit in.' You will be tested and if you don't respond well, challenge authority, or lack humor regarding “pranks,' you will not likely feel welcomed.

"Those who want to belong to “the guys,' “the brotherhood,' “the family,' are usually prepared to suffer the inconvenience of a prank like: a frozen shirt, sudden cold-water shower, missing clothes after shower, burning tissue thrown into toilet stall, lit disinfectant foam near your feet while on the toilet, chair in the bunk while you're asleep, etc."

The problems at Station 2 pose a major challenge for Chief Charles U. Phillips, the first African American ever to head the 1600-member department. When in November he succeeded Washington-bound David Paulison, now U.S. Fire Administrator, Phillips first had to deal with the "Opa-locka Three," the black firefighters at Station 26. They caused a commotion during the post-September 11 surge of patriotism when they removed an American flag from their fire truck, claiming it was a safety hazard -- and that to them it did not symbolize equality and justice.

The IRP investigation, requested by Paulison, is itself unprecedented. Since the IRP was created 22 years ago, no county administrator has ever asked it to investigate his own department.

Seeing the potential for another racially fueled flare-up over Latimore, Phillips has personally intervened. He has twice met with Latimore and others in futile attempts to quell the disturbance. Says Phillips of his effort at dispute resolution: "I admit it: It didn't work." Now the community is involved. Last week the Progressive Firefighters Association (PFA), which represents all but a handful of the department's approximately 230 black firefighters, held the first of what leaders say will be regular street demonstrations in support of Latimore's demands that he be reassigned to B shift at Station 2 and that Gimenez and Machado be moved elsewhere. "We feel that what has been done to Willie is so egregious," said Lt. Faye Davis, PFA president. "When he spoke out, they singled him out and drove him out of the station."

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, “Look, 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.

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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