Burned Bridges, Careers

Bias charges raise alarms in the halls of the Miami-Dade Fire Rescue academy

According to personnel records, Hill was dismissed from the academy on August 2, 2002. The 25-year-old failed a make-up exam testing his ability to quickly and correctly tie various firefighter tools onto a rope. Hill, who had the second-highest academic grade point average in his class, scored 75.17 on the tool-tying test, about five points below the minimum score allowed by the department. Eleven recruits failed the test, but all of them, with the exception of Hill, Brown, and a white female recruit, were allowed to return. Of those eight reinstated cadets, one was black, two were white, and five were Hispanic.

Hill contends he has not been allowed back into the academy because he irritated instructors, and because he would not tolerate personal attacks. According to the three recruits and other academy trainees who spoke on the condition of anonymity, instructors verbally abused and belittled cadets on a daily basis. Hill drew the wrath of Lt. Maria Chin and Capt. William Herrera, the two lead instructors he says conspired to have him kicked out. "One time Herrera called me a smart-ass and asked me if I was insubordinate in corrections," Hill remembers.

Hill called Herrera's truthfulness into question during his final meeting with the instructors. He insists that Herrera was not present while the recruit was taking his make-up exam on July 23, 2002. Under department rules, Chin was supposed to grade Hill in the presence of another certified instructor. Hill claims Herrera was teaching a class and had a noncertified instructor monitor Chin. Herrera then signed Hill's grade report attesting he had witnessed Chin conduct the exam. Herrera denied Hill's account of events during the meeting, according to department memos, and Hill stormed out of the room. On August 12, 2002, Hill appealed to then-Fire Chief Charles Phillips, via a letter. "He just took the captain's side and didn't investigate anything," Hill says dejectedly. Herrera could not be reached for comment; department spokesman Germain declined comment.

Brown, a 32-year-old former Navy serviceman, says instructors favored abusing cadets over teaching them. He recalls instructors forcing students to do strenuous exercises as punishment for making mistakes. "It was not a real positive learning environment," Brown says. "One instructor once told me that if I kept on ovulating he would have to send me to the maternity ward." Upon his dismissal from the academy on July 25, 2003, for the same reason as Hill, Brown appealed to county manager George Burgess, asking for a second opportunity in light of the instructors' behavior. "I was placed in a helpless position where threats were often and termination was prevalent," Brown wrote.

According to department records, recruits are not the only ones to question Herrera's behavior. In a February 7, 2002 interoffice memo, Lt. Michael Valdes accuses Herrera of making derogatory and offensive comments toward recruits, such as calling one a "worthless piece of shit." Valdes alleged that the captain would force recruits to wear their helmets and their heavy coats at all times, even when they were not participating in live drills. "I found myself defending the right of every individual to be out there not only to the captain, but other instructors who shared in his sentiments," the lieutenant wrote. Herrera denied Valdes's accusations in a subsequent memo.

The third recruit, Michel, didn't fail any of his exams, but was dismissed from the department on August 7, 2003, after he missed several days of training. According to Michel and department records, instructors determined he had to obtain medical clearance to continue with his lessons after the recruit complained of fatigue and minor chest pains during a workout the last week of July. As a result, Michel missed about four days of class until he was able to provide a clean bill of health. His instructors let him take his exams and he passed. "Next thing I know I'm being terminated and they're telling me their hands are tied," Michel says.

Another recruit, Tonya Rozier, also missed time because of health concerns, but was allowed back into the academy. Yet Bared informed Michel, via an August 15 letter, that the fire department did not have the resources to allow Michel to make up his training hours in order to be reinstated. Michel's situation caused one instructor, Capt. Jerome Byrd, Sr., to break ranks and write an August 11 memo to Bared condemning the department's action. "It saddens me and many other's [sic] on this department to see the career of this young man thrown away," Byrd wrote. "It appears that the training staff is not concerned with training, but with terminating."

In August Bared reassigned all of the instructors, including Byrd, Chin, and Herrera, following the death of fire cadet Wayne Mitchell during a drill at Port Everglades. The department, the Broward County Sheriff's Office, the state Fire Marshall, and federal safety officials are conducting separate investigations into the incident. Mitchell's death is an unfortunate example of the instructors' disregard for trainees, says Michel. "Herrera would always say his goal was to get the temperature up to 1600 degrees Fahrenheit and see if you could handle it," Michel says. "Instead of helping you, they wanted to test the limits of your mind and body."

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