Report validates fire service complaints

Will local firefighters be treated more fairly following enquiry report?

Will local firefighters be treated more fairly following enquiry report?

The display of insensitivity by some members of the Saint Lucia Fire Service toward their subordinates is something amazing. Ms Kedia Chiquot was a probationer firewoman when she became pregnant. She asked for permission to wear civilian clothing, as the fire service woman was uncomfortable on account of her pregnancy.

“Ms Chiquot also asked to be put to perform light duties during her pregnancy. The Chief Fire Officer took a rather stiff-necked and straight-laced approach to those requests by Ms. Chiquot. The Ministry of Gender Relations had to intervene in the matter in order for there to prevail the human factor which accommodated those very reasonable requests by Ms. Chiquot.

“That it took an intervention by that Ministry before the SLFS management would do the right thing underscores the insensitivity which the SLFS is at times so very guilty.”

The above is part of a report following an enquiry into the operations of the Saint Lucia Fire Service that started last December and probed the conduct and management of the Fire Service and the laws relating to it. This followed years of wrangling, often in the media, between the head of the Fire Service Association Shane Felix and Fire Chief Leslie Fontenelle.

In a press release this week, Felix noted that the commission had validated  the complaints as “well-founded and that the government should take immediate action to remedy the situation.” Shane Felix sees this as a victory for the FSA, and the association has since met with its legal counsel Cynthia Hinkson-Ouhla and its members.

Wrote Felix: “At the association’s general meeting the members were of the view that the level of infractions against the Chief Fire Officer and Officer Ditney Downes (officer in charge of the southern division) were such that disciplinary action should be pursued against them by the public service commission.”

The commission’s report, which has been sent to the Governor General, listed a number of infractions against senior fire officers, including “sexual harassment of a female officer, discrimination and unfair treatment of fire personnel as it relates to promotion, transfers and payment of allowances.”

There are also charges that senior officers exaggerated qualifications of individuals in making recommendations and publicly humiliated and caused embarrassment to fire personnel. Shane Felix was himself one of the subjects of the enquiry. Questions were raised about his transfer within the department.

Many FSOs who testified before the commission complained that often promotions in the Saint Lucia Fire Service were unfair and not in accordance with equal treatment and equal opportunity. There was also the unfair profile of officer Marcus Paul, highlighted by the commission, suggesting that any reasonable person would condemn it as grossly unfair. At the time of the profiling, the report says, the SLFS was protesting Paul’s leadership at the Fire Service Association.

Said the report: “Thus, Chief Fire Officer Fontenelle on 28 December, 2009 wrote Paul a caution letter saying that Paul was using FSC chairmanship to further his personal agenda, and abusing that office while the CFO erroneously claimed that the FSA could not speak for SLFS Gazetted Officers.” The report also labeled the non-recommendation of Eve Albert “a mystery” and concluded that CFO Leslie Fontenelle had been “personalizing the matter of relations between him and the FSA leaders.”

In another example of abuse of power and poor judgment on the part of the Fire Service management, a fire officer claimed he had suffered much public ridicule. Fireman Jn Baptiste complained that he was a member of an SLFS crew tending to a fire when his breathing apparatus malfunctioned, preventing him from putting it on expeditiously. He said Downes, his superior, without inquiring what was the matter, proceeded to make derogatory remarks about him within hearing of the public at the scene.

The enquiry, which was headed by Dr. Francis Alexis QC, relied on documents and oral testimony in compiling its report. It was submitted to the Governor General on April 3, 2013. No word yet on how or when the government or the Public Service Commission intends to act on this report!

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