Sexual activity at Vernon fire hall exposed 'toxic' workplace - InfoNews

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Sexual activity at Vernon fire hall exposed 'toxic' workplace

Vernon Fire and Rescue Services
March 26, 2019 - 2:42 PM

CITY THOUGHT IT WAS RID OF ONE SOURCE. NOW THAT HE'S ORDERED BACK, WHAT'S NEXT?

VERNON - A short sexual tryst in the fire chief’s office captured all the headlines, but arbitration reports on the escapade also exposed a far deeper problem of just how toxic the workplace environment of Vernon Fire Rescue has become — a place where dirty tricks, lies, theft and deception have pervaded for years.

Despite stated intentions by the City of Vernon and the Vernon fire chief to fix the problem, their efforts including surveillance were like throwing water on a grease fire, particularly since Brent Bond, one of the alleged catalysts of the discord, won the right to return to work and represent workers in the firefighters union.

It’s also getting expensive. Over the past five years, the City of Vernon has commissioned two reports into the sorry state of relations between management and the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 1517 as well as numerous hearings before Labour Relations Code arbitrators.

Two Vernon Fire Service employees — Bond and a dispatcher — were fired in March 2018 after they were caught in an 88-second tryst in the fire chief’s office, at least until arbitrators scaled it back to a suspension. But the circumstances that led Fire Chief Dave Lind to install a camera in his office was the real issue the department was dealing with.

He didn’t expect to find employees using his office for a sexual dalliance, he expected to catch someone stealing potentially sensitive information from his office.

The arbitrators report shows this was serious concern to management for several years including several incidents of theft of confidential documents; locked filing cabinets found unlocked, and union staff being somehow aware of confidential information. That led city manager Will Pearce to give the go-ahead for then interim Fire Chief David Lind to install a surveillance camera in his office in the fall of 2017.

They suspected they’d catch Bond red-handed, not with his pants down.

Before Lind even became acting Chief, the City and the fire department knew the problems in the department. In 2015, an independent review was conducted. Results from the report released January 2016 identified problems with communication, training, career and volunteer firefighters relations and difficulties between union reps and management.

Following the report, retired Delta Police Chief Jim Cessford was brought in to investigate allegations of bullying, intimidation and harassment in the Fire Service. iNFOnews.ca requested costs for these reports, but Pearce refused to release that information, as well as costs of arbitration proceedings without a formal Freedom of Information request.

In 2016 Pearce explained to Lind what he was walking into.

"The explicit message was to be cautious trusting union leadership," states the ruling.

Lind's hiring as interim fire chief came just after a spate of staff leaving the fire service. In September 2016 Fire Chief Keith Green went on sick leave. Months later deputy fire chief Lawrie Skolrood, emergency services coordinator Helen Sinclair and administrative assistant Liz Thomson all left the fire service.

Deputy fire chief Jack Blair resigned in March 2017 after five years of service.

Before setting up the camera, Lind believed he may have been tricked by Bond and acting captain Doug Imrich during a meeting in April 2017. Lind says he believes Imrich purposely distracted him during the meeting so Bond could remove a document from his office. Lind also said he recalled a Christmas party where he was told that Bond and Imrich had removed a document from a meeting with government representatives whereby Imrich distracted the officials so Bond could take the document. Imrich testified saying Lind's story is “completely false.” 

Tensions in the fire hall rose and Lind said Bond advised him there would be no more co-operation with management and that he'd "set the department back 10 years." Bond denied saying this to the fire chief.

Lind testified he found his locked cabinet unlocked and found on several occasions union members knew confidential information discussed at in-camera council meetings. Bond had mentioned to Lind that management had recommended to council that dispatch services be contracted out, information Lind was sure was only available in a classified document kept in his locked cabinet.

"The ongoing suspicion was that a union representative had gone into his filing cabinet," the ruling states.

Concerns about dispatch services being contracted out were an ongoing discussion with the union opposed. Dispatch services were contracted to Kelowna in October 2018, at the loss of four jobs.

On one occasion Lind discovered his filling cabinet unlocked, although he said he had become hypervigilant about ensuring it was locked routinely. He testified about his obsession with locking the cabinet - he would leave work and then return to confirm he had definitely locked it.

Deputy chief Scott Hemstad testified about an untrusting environment, which he characterized as at the “storming stage.” Hemstad took to locking his door, leaving his garbage and recycling outside his office and only having it cleaned during the day.

Following the spate of incidents, a decision was made to install a hidden surveillance camera in the fire chief's office in the fall of 2017. City staff drafted a privacy impact assessment, signed by the fire chief December 2017 and the camera was installed the same day.

Fired in March 2018, Vernon Fire Service captain Brent Bond has won an appeal to get his job back.
Fired in March 2018, Vernon Fire Service captain Brent Bond has won an appeal to get his job back.
Image Credit: Image Credit: BCFFA

According to the ruling, no one seemed to have a handle on who had keys for cabinets or doors in the building but changing locks or installing new locks on office doors "was never seriously considered."

The only other item caught on camera was, again, Bond. One short piece of video that was interrupted but not explained, caught Bond looking at papers on the chief’s desk before the camera stopped. 

Bond appears to have been a central figure in much of the discord. He was the subject of ‘non disciplinary action’ including a letter of expectation for a verbal exchange with another Captain in July 2015 then again that year because Bond used fire department resources to urge union members by email to vote NDP in the upcoming election. In February 2017, a firefighter complained of bullying by Bond and an investigation found he was “disrespectful, unprofessional and intended to belittle the firefighter."

Lind suspended Bond and put him on a performance improvement plan, under which they were to meet nine times over four months but the difficulties of disciplining the union president became clear in notes Lind wrote. In one meeting Bond "brought my attention to things you felt management, myself and others were doing wrong or not well enough,” then “at one point you mentioned you felt presenteeism [present in body but not contributing] and a lack of morale were associated with your demotion and that the way to improve this was to return you to your shift as soon as possible.”

Management has called him “duplicitous” saying he "does not have the character required to be a firefighter, and to work in a position of public trust."

It’s clear that City of Vernon and fire department management believed Bond was a clear source of much of the distrust in the fire department but the installation of the camera — and lack of explanation of it before, during or after its use — appears to have created more distrust on its own.

"After the dismissals, news of employer surreptitious video surveillance spread quickly,” the report states. "There were rumours and upset.”

Pearce himself had an opportunity to explain to firefighters in the aftermath of the dismissals. Lind was on holiday and Pearce addressed the troops and told them two people were fired for sexual activity, but failed to explain at all why the surveillance was deemed necessary.

Pearce has declined interview requests throughout the arbitration hearings and has only made public remarks in a news release issued by the City of Vernon after Bond was ordered returned to work by arbitrators. Again, Pearce believed Bond was the source of discord in the department. If ameliorating that problem was on his mind, it didn’t show. He pointed out the then-three-year-old allegations of bullying by Bond before promising the city would explore ‘a range of options’ in dealing with the decision it strongly disagreed with.

“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 Fire Hall when on shift. Lives depend on rapid response. Engaging in sexual activity rather than managing the Platoon is absolutely unacceptable,” Pearce said. “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 honor 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.”

Now Bond, which the fire department noted in submissions would be ‘untouchable’ if he were allowed to return to work, will indeed return to work.

That was on the mind of arbitrator John McKearney as well. He would have upheld Bond's firing, he said in a dissenting opinion. He said Bond "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."

He said the "uncontradicted evidence is the union/management relationship and environment in the fire hall is greatly improved with Bond's departure."

He worried specifically about young fire fighter Daniel Nadeau who testified he saw Bond and the dispatcher being intimate on two other occasions.

"Placing Mr. Bond back into this... would in all likelihood set back the current progress being made in labour relations. Further, the courage displayed by firefighter Nadeau to speak honestly of what he witnessed is extremely difficult in the fire culture and I am concerned with how he would be treated by Mr. Bond."

Pearce told iNFOnews.ca in an email he would not discuss personnel or legal matters. Neither Bond nor Lind returned our calls.


To contact a reporter for this story, email Ben Bulmer or call (250) 309-5230 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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