In his fifteen years as a firefighter in Dade County, Dan Corcoran has rescued charred children from a blazing apartment, pulled dead bodies from flaming houses, and saved a baby born in a toilet bowl. But he says a promising career in the job he loves was shot down by a 3.5-inch derringer that can't even be fired.
This past December 20 Corcoran, then a captain at Station 5 in Goulds, left a pouch containing the miniature pistol in a rescue truck, in violation of the Metro-Dade County Fire Department's rule prohibiting the carrying of firearms on the job. Two colleagues at the station found the eight-ounce derringer and stored it in Corcoran's locker, where he picked it up later that week, and the incident may have gone unrecorded if a lieutenant under Corcoran's command hadn't reported to a superior a month later that he had overheard talk about the gun.
An ensuing investigation confirmed the report and also uncovered allegations that Corcoran had brought a .38 caliber pistol into the firehouse at other times, says Capt. Glenn Patton, Corcoran's immediate supervisor at the time. Corcoran was also accused of attempting to intimidate one of the firefighters who had found the derringer. In early March Corcoran answered the allegations in a meeting with Fire Chief Gene Perry and other top department officials. But on March 29, on the basis of the three charges, the chief busted Corcoran to the rank of firefighter - a two-notch demotion - and slashed $10,000 from his annual salary. Corcoran has appealed his demotion and hired a lawyer to represent him, and a two-day hearing is set to begin November 6.
The firefighter acknowledges leaving the derringer in the truck, but he says the weapon was unloaded and couldn't possibly be fired. "I bought it several years ago as a novelty for $100," Corcoran says. "I ground down the firing pin because I caught my twelve-year-old son playing with it." He says his son had playfully and surreptitiously slipped the collector's item into the belt bag he used to carry items such as his checkbook.
While he refuses to comment on the allegation that he carried a .38 caliber pistol in the fire station on other occasions, Corcoran denies the claim that he bullied a colleague, firefighter Tim Graham. And according to Captain Patton's sworn deposition, taken by Corcoran's attorney after the demotion, Graham never explicitly said Corcoran verbally intimidated him but only "mentioned that Dan's general posture is somewhat intimidating because of his size and because of his general posture." (Corcoran, who lifts weights, stands 5'11" and weighs 225 pounds.)
Chief Perry says that as far as he knows, Corcoran is the first Metro-Dade Fire Department employee ever punished for a firearms violation. "We felt very strongly that his actions required severe discipline because we had to send a message," adds Assistant Chief Robert Paulison. "[Firefighters] are nonthreatening. We go in to help people. We have to maintain that integrity so we can go into a situation where even police can't go." Under current policy, only two people working for the department are permitted to carry guns: the internal affairs officer and the chief of the air-rescue division, both of whom are also police officers.
But Dan Corcoran says he wasn't by any means the first firefighter to bring a gun into the fire station, and that the real issue behind his demotion is power, not safety. "I bent a few noses, I stepped on the fire chief's toes a few times," he admits. "I just did things that made them mad, like questioning how they were appointing people to positions. I'm not in administrative favor." Corcoran insists he was a likely scapegoat for Chief Perry to hold up in front of the department, which he says had previously taken a lax view toward the no-guns rule. Perry says Corcoran was demoted for violating the regulations, adding that any firearms-related transgressions by other employees would be punished, as well.
As a firefigher, Corcoran always performed his duties well, says Captain Patton. "He was technically more than adequate, but his interpersonal skills leave something to be desired," says Corcoran's ex-boss. "Captain Corcoran, to put it in other terms, probably does not have very many people on his side and he has a tendency not to win friends easily." But Patton describes the two-rank demotion as "a little excessive," and said in his deposition that it was "unfair."
"The demotion is very severe, especially since chiefs, captains, lieutenants, and firefighters have seen weapons [at the stations]," says one sixteen-year veteran of the department who, like several other firefighters, would only comment on the condition of anonymity. "If this administration is trying to make an example of how they'd like this no-guns law to be interpreted, then it's probably a good thing they came down hard."
Both Perry and Paulison say they've never seen a gun in a fire station, but several other veteran department employees contend that for yearsfirefighters would occasionally show off their personal pistols and hunting rifles to their colleagues. Some even carried weapons with them for protection on rescue missions. By several accounts, this practice was extremely common during the Miami riots in 1980 and 1989. Patton, a 22-year veteran and a captain for six of those years, said under oath that he saw "firefighters, chiefs, captains, numerous people on the department" carrying pistols during "civil disturbances prior to 1990 and during the 1980 riot."
"If I'm going into a riot area, I'm going to swing the truck by my house and give my wife a kiss. And as I'm giving her a kiss, she's slipping a gun in my pants," says the anonymous sixteen-year veteran, who drove a fire truck and carried a gun during the McDuffie riots. "If it's between my life or my job, I'm going to lose my job."
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The same order of priorities is clear in the mind of Doug Jewett, a paramedic and renowned maverick in the department who doesn't hesitate to admit he carries a gun "off and on" at work. For most of his nineteen years as a firefighter, Jewett has worked in Liberty City's Station 2, considered to be the busiest and one of the most dangerous posts in the system.
"I carry a gun mostly at night, when the place starts smelling a little weird, when the cops start running back and forth," Jewett explains. "There's always been a tradition that firefighters are here to save lives, not shoot anybody," he says, pulling a Colt .38 and a leg holster from the front seat of his personal truck, parked just outside the station's garage. "But hell, we've got a lot of animals out there." During the McDuffie riots, Jewett says, he held a civilian hostage at gun point until his partner was able to pull a battered man out of a fray. "I grabbed the guy and put a gun to his neck and said to a pack of rioters, `If I get hit by a rock I'm going to kill him.' Maybe I know I'm breaking the rules, but hell, rules have to be broken when danger comes up. Rules can't be made while sitting in an office. I'd rather be tried by twelve than carried by six."
Chief Perry says there is no reason for a firefighter to carry a personal weapon on the job, because the department has strict guidelines that govern when fire-rescue personnel should enter an accident scene. Paramedics, who are sent to all injury scenes, are allowed to wait for police back-up before entering a site if they feel unsafe.
Several firefighters say that since Corcoran's demotion, guns have become an extinct species around the department. As one veteran puts it, "You're not going to see any show-and-tell in the fire station for a long time.