Sex at firehall, must rehire

The City of Vernon has been ordered to reinstate two employees who were fired a year ago for engaging in sexual activity while on duty at the Vernon firehall.

The order was made by a majority of an arbitration board convened to hear a grievance brought forward by the B.C. International Association of Fire Fighters.

The fire captain and a dispatcher were caught on a surveillance camera placed in the chief's office for another matter during a turbulent time in the department's history in which tensions were high between management and union members.

The fire captain, not named by the city, had previously served a three-day suspension for engaging in bullying and harassment of a fellow firefighter.

“Our emergency personnel have a duty to serve our taxpayers and respond with all due diligence, not to be distracted from their duties by engaging in sexual relations in the firehall when on shift. Lives depend on rapid response. Engaging in sexual activity rather than managing the platoon is absolutely unacceptable,” said Will Pearce, chief administrative officer for the city.

“I am most disappointed in the majority decision. It sends entirely the wrong message to fire personnel across the country and to staff of the City of Vernon. It is not now and will never be acceptable or ethical for a direct supervisor to engage in a sexual relationship with junior and subordinate staff. The City of Vernon has an employee code of ethics, known by both employees, that requires staff to maintain the highest ideals of honour and integrity in public and business relationships and not to act in any way that would detract from the image of integrity or professionalism of the City of Vernon.”

“I extend my apologies to the citizens of Vernon for the behaviour of these two people. Our staff, with few exceptions, are dedicated to high standards of service, ethics, integrity, and honesty. These two individuals do not reflect the professionalism of the proud public servants who work for the city.”

The union grieved the dismissals and objected to the admissibility of the video footage into evidence. 

It did acknowledge the employer had just and reasonable cause to discipline both employees, but said dismissal was excessive.

The decision of the arbitration panel was not unanimous.

John McKearney, former chief of the Vancouver Fire Department, wrote: “In 2018, a fire captain involved in a sexual encounter with a female subordinate, in the fire hall, in a reckless open manner, on a Sunday morning, must generally be considered cause for termination. The conduct was antithetical to (his) responsibility as Captain and leader of the shift and has created a poison work environment for other females in the hall (and for males). His actions were a gross violation of his duty to create a welcoming work environment for all, and especially for women.”

Pearce said the city believes the arbitration board erred in its decision and is exploring a range of options.

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