AUSTIN (KXAN) — The Austin Firefighters Association says the fire department failed to thoroughly investigate complaints made against a former lieutenant, which led to an unsafe work environment and potentially put the public at risk.
Now-retired AFD Lt. James Baker is accused of secretly recording video of women in a fire station locker room and has an apparent history of complaints that he would inappropriately touch female patients on emergency scenes. The complaints are said to date back years.
Monday, four female firefighters spoke on behalf of the union in response to comments made from Baker and his attorney, coming to the defense of AFA President Bob Nicks. Nicks says Baker and his attorney have suggested the union is on a “witch hunt” and the allegations made against him back in 2013 about inappropriately touching patients are wrong.
The firefighters shared their concerns regarding what they say was management’s failure to fully investigate the allegations against Baker. Because of that, union members say Baker was able to allegedly illegally record video in the women’s shower and locker room.
“I felt the need to speak out,” AFD Captain Christine Jones said. “I was outraged. The very idea of something like this goes against everything that we stand for as firefighters.”
“Why, when presented evidence of misconduct, a proper investigation was not overseen and supervised by the fire department?” firefighter Rikki Stankevitz said.
“We believe that if the Austin Fire Department had properly referred the matter to the Professional Standards Office, it would have been investigated and he would have been fired. And then the alleged filming would have never have had a chance to happen,” firefighter Vanessa Schaefer said. “Not only did the department’s desire to avoid bad publicity put us as firefighters in a vulnerable position, it put women in the public in an extremely vulnerable position and that is unacceptable.”
Complaints from 2013 have surfaced with letters to management detailing incidents of Baker examining female patients with his hand down their shirts. One complaint read, “Lt. Baker was performing a very unusual head to toe assessment of the female patient… I do not want to be associated with this type of patient care and hopefully, it will never happen again.”
Another complaint from 2013 said, “In my 26yrs [sic] I have not seen or heard from the other firefighters that they have seen an assessment felt as uncomfortable on the scene as when Lt. Baker was doing his assessments.”
Another complainant wrote in an email, “I have heard several times the comment, ‘If he did that to my wife’ there’d be trouble” and “I can assure you, firefighters in general are not comfortable working on Lt. Baker’s crew.”
AFD sent the investigation to the Office of the Medical Director (OMD), which does clinical reviews of Emergency Medical Service. But the union says the office doesn’t look closely at firefighter misconduct, saying AFD should have done more. The OMD review came back clean.
“He was put back on the rig within three shifts, which is bizarre. I mean we have people that are taken off on administrative leave during investigations for much less for much longer periods of time. This was not vetted very well,” Nicks said.
Baker’s attorney, Larry Sauer, told KXAN it’s unfair for Nicks to connect the 2013 complaints to the current allegations of invasive recording.
“I don’t know what his agenda is,” Sauer said. “There was nothing wrong done. So there is no connection.”
The union says for the first time, it plans to put out a survey to women firefighters, asking if they’ve experienced any sort of sexual harassment and how their complaints were handled. The union then plans to put together recommendations to give to management.
“When you see something like this, it’s a bell weather that we need to do more work,” Nicks said.
Fire Chief Rhoda Mae Kerr said in a statement she looks forward to hearing what specific actions the union recommends AFD take on this issue. She says the department took steps to strengthen its harassment policy several years ago, but if there was ever a time to have “courageous conversations” about this topic, that time is now.