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As inquiry wraps, current, former PG first responders recount experiences

Following a Freedom of Information Act request to Prince George County, the findings of an extensive investigation into the county’s fire and EMS department were detailed for the first time in the March 11 edition of The Prince George Journal.

Those documents showed the Prince George Board of Supervisors requested the investigation and directed the county attorney and human resource offices to interview current and former staff to “[assess] the operations of the department.”

A majority of the investigation’s findings were centered on human resources-related issues, ranging from improper hiring and promotion practices, discrimination on the basis of race and gender, improper discipline and a number of others.

In addition, the report concealed the names of current and former employees who were interviewed as part of the investigation due to fears of retaliation.

Those fears were shared by some who spoke to The Prince George Journal under the condition of anonymity about the investigation and their own experiences as employees of the county.

A former first responder said they were subjected to retaliation in the form of being completely removed from the schedule and not receiving hours following a conversation about an aspect of service delivery in the community, adding that the matter did not reach the county’s human resources office.

“It didn’t even go through HR, there was nothing written up,” they recounted.

The former staffer continued, “I couldn’t have any part-time hours on the schedule for like a month and I had to think about whether or not I wanted to be there and if that wasn’t the place for me, then they would assist me and help me find a better place to be,” adding that such incidents occurred more than once.

According to the investigation report, “improper discipline,” which “[included] terminations” were named as a human resources issue in the department. To that end, one of the over two dozen recommendations provided to the county to remedy issues in the department focused on having both the county’s human resources and county attorney’s offices assisting the director in handling discipline, adding that employees cannot be targeted for disciplinary action.

Within that recommendation, Director Brad Owens and “any supervisor in the county’s fire and EMS department” are barred from using the term “managing out.” While no specific definition for the term was listed in the report, one anonymous staffer described it as a method to have an employee either resign or be terminated by issuing a series of write-ups during a short period of time.

“Everything they try to get you to do and it’s something you can’t do, they write it down and then they can manage you out from a paperwork standpoint,” the public safety professional described, noting, after a certain point, superiors in the department “look at it like a probationary period and say, ‘Well, you just don’t cut it here, look at all these write-ups you had, you’re not doing this or that.’”

A former employee of the department said they believe they were a victim of the “managing out” practice, noting there were a number of items in their human resource file they “had never seen.”

“There were things in my file that I had never seen before that had never been signed in my HR file,” they revealed. “There were probably eight or ten items I had never seen that were written on me in just a couple weeks’ time toward the end.”

In the recommendations provided in conjunction with the findings of the investigation, while partially redacted, it is noted that “a different set of files will not be kept at any venue that differs with that contained in Human Resources.” In addition, employees “will be notified when a document is placed in their personnel file and will have access to their personnel file upon request.”

As detailed in the investigation’s introductory passage, retaliation wasn’t limited to those currently employed in the department as some feared some form of response that could affect their current jobs with “interference with future employers” being listed among the issues.

According to a former county first responder, superiors at their current job approached them about comments shared with their employer by a higher-up member of Prince George Fire and EMS. When learning of this, the public safety professional said they were deeply concerned.

“Obviously it is not something that anybody wants when you are just trying to walk away and move on,” they said. “Especially since I did go to an attorney and stay down with him and he told me he felt like I had a case and I chose to walk away,” saying their attorney wanted them to “want their job” in Prince George back but, they were not interested in returning to the county for fear of retribution.

Racial and gender-based discrimination was listed in the county’s report, as well, with a former employee saying they weren’t provided support in a specific capacity of their job while a male counterpart was and claims a male employee in the department “felt it was okay” to ask for female employees for pictures of their breasts.

While an entire page of the investigation’s findings, along with 15 recommendations in another document, were completed redacted from public view in accordance with exemptions provided in the Virginia Freedom of Information Act, the report recommended sexual harassment, diversity and inclusion, and conflict management resolution training for the department.

In addition, the recommendations suggest, “Sexual harassment and diversity training shall be required of all newly hired staff upon employment and shall be provided annually to all staff.”

Those with close knowledge of the organization also confirmed another finding of the investigation regarding allegations of misuse of the department’s chain of command, where some employees were told they could not speak to the board of supervisors about the investigation or other matters “under penalty of insubordination,” which is a violation of state law.

“An acting captain came out to the station and told his shift, ‘You’re not allowed to go to the board of supervisors, on or off-duty,’” a county first responder who also requested anonymity shared. “[The department] has letters stating that it did happen. The Code of Virginia says it’s not a misdemeanor or anything but it is still a Virginia code law that was broken there.

Overall, the investigation found a series of “prevailing themes” within the department, including “dysfunction,” “favoritism,” “harassment/bullying,” and “arrogance,” among others.

“Favoritism was a big one,” a former Prince George firefighter-paramedic recounted. “If you were a ‘yes sir,’ willing to do anything and everything, and you didn’t speak up for what was right versus what was wrong and you just did the task at hand, then absolutely you were favored.”

Continuing, they said, “Your opinions got asked in staff meetings and you were asked to bring your opinions forward but, they really didn’t want your opinions. They really just wanted you to do what they wanted to do.”

When given the opportunity to speak with the county’s investigators, the former county first responder said it felt good to finally have someone listen to their own experience of working in the county’s fire and EMS department.

“Sitting down and being able to tell my story felt great because I got to finally tell my story and my side of things rather than being looked at as the girl who couldn’t do her job and that she had to go and that someone cared,” they shared. “They even looked at me at one point in time in the investigation and said how sorry they were that I went through the things that I went through when I worked for Prince George County during my entire time that I was there but, that doesn’t get my job back.”

As the county confirms their efforts to implement the over two dozen recommendations made by the investigative body, some hope it will bring forth an opportunity for new leadership within the department.

“They need fresh eyes and someone who is going to come in and understand a system like that and treat people fairly across the board and doesn’t hold grudges and not listen to rumors,” the former employee shared. “[Someone who is] a fair leader in the county and knows how to do it at the same time and being able to handle the politics as well.”